Sunday 19 January 2020

Angry lion in winter surrounded by a sea of troubles

As Manchester United ended the first half a goal down on Wednesday night, it was still barely conceivable that they wouldn't at least salvage the draw they needed.

Basel were spirited but ordinary. Alex Ferguson would sort out his players at half-time, they would do the needful in the second half.

But the minutes ticked by and still there was no sign of them finding another gear. They were seeing more of the ball, Basel were retreating in numbers, but at no stage did United go into overdrive. The situation was getting increasingly ominous but their efforts remained curiously static. Nani and Giggs had faded, Ashley Young had disappeared, Wayne Rooney looked out of sorts.

Then the Swiss got a second with six minutes remaining. Their goalkeeper was charm itself in the post-match interviews. It was the greatest night of his life. They had just beaten Manchester United. He said it once, he said it a second time, chuckling in disbelief all the while.

United were out of the Champions League before Christmas. The bigger the empire, the greater the shockwaves. It demanded, as it always does on these occasions, an inquest that would extend far beyond the nuts and bolts of the match itself. It would demand a complete over-reaction. And that's what has duly followed in the days since. Once again in the fabled history of Ferguson and United, a single landmark defeat has been turned into a crisis of existential proportions.

In these cases it is almost a dereliction of duty for the soccer press to look merely at the smaller picture. But United's midfield was a patchwork quilt on the night because of a raft of injuries. Their front line was similarly stripped of options because of injuries to Hernandez and Berbatov. And they lost their anchor, the commanding Nemanja Vidic, to another injury before half-time. Rooney meanwhile had had a simple chance on 30 minutes to make the game 1-1. It was a tap-in, virtually an open goal, and it would've changed everything. Had he scored and United survived, the match would already be fading into oblivion.

They were all mitigating circumstances. United's failure could be plausibly explained by these alone. But suddenly everything is up for discussion -- including even Ferguson's tenure at the club. A credible charge is that they were complacent, not just in Basel but throughout a qualifying campaign that was supposed to be a cakewalk for one of European football's superpowers. Again on Wednesday they played like they expected their opponents to roll over.

In fairness, the big picture needs looking at too because the wheel has turned spectacularly since the day in late August when they plundered eight goals against Arsenal. They followed it up with five against Bolton and three against Chelsea. This was supposed to be a season of transition for United but by mid-September the verdict was already in: Ferguson had done it again. His powers were undimmed. He was building the next great era. He was building a side that would take on Barcelona the next time they met in Europe.

Then came the day Old Trafford was left shellshocked: the 6-1 humiliation at the hands of Manchester City. The trauma was such that Ferguson immediately flipped the emphasis from attack to defence. The goals dried up. One-nils were the order of the day. Maybe by last Wednesday night he had a team on his hands with a confused identity.

Now they're asking if the team reconstruction they were applauding three months ago has failed. They asked the same question six years ago when United also made an early exit from Europe and the Abramovich-Mourinho revolution was under way at Stamford Bridge. He weathered that storm magnificently: Chelsea threw down the gauntlet, Ferguson threw down three more championships and another European Cup.

He is, among other things, the great survivor. He has seen weeks like this before. He knows what needs to be done. And what needs to be done always involves money and time. It is widely accepted that the owners are keeping a tight grip on the money. But if in recent years he has been asking for it, he will now demand it. He has good reason to: their cross-town rivals have all the money in the world. The team is out of Europe. The club, and not just the squad, needs a new superstar.

As for time, there is no such thing as Fergie time. He will be 70 in 20 days. He is one hard man, tough all the way to the marrow. But he is not impervious to doubt or introspection. The industry he has dominated has changed again. He faced down Abramovich and his billions and now he is facing Man City's monopoly money on his own doorstep. Real Madrid are looming large in Spain. Barcelona dismantled his team in May. And now, absurdly, Basel have dumped them out of the Champions League.

The odds against him are suddenly looking stacked. He may well be asking himself if he has the will to do it all over again. It is, inescapably, late in his life to be facing a challenge on this scale.

After the game Ferguson was asked about Roy Keane's critical comments on ITV. He replied by putting the boot into Keane in fine style. In that moment he became the lion in winter: ageing, angry and surrounded by a sea of troubles.

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