Sport Soccer

Wednesday 25 April 2018

Venerables to mere mortals

Financial difficulties and Rooney's absence leave United exposed, writes Dion Fanning

Mind games mess with your head. Alex Ferguson spent so much time on smoke and mirrors last week that he forgot he had a team to pick.

Ferguson seemed so pleased with his declaration that Wayne Rooney was out -- which most observers immediately decided was effectively making him the first player on the team-sheet -- that he forgot to consider the effect that picking a half-fit player would have on his side. Manchester United are a one-man team: that has become clear this season as their defence creaked and the Glazers felt the pinch.

It was no surprise that Rooney was robustly treated by Bayern and no surprise what happened when he, and Rafael, left. Everybody is delighted that John O'Shea is back, but nobody wanted to see him at that point last Wednesday.

Chelsea and Bayern Munich have turned United's week of promise into an examination of what the Glazers must do next to energise the club.

Ferguson was at war again on Friday, turning on the media which he accused of reporting behind a "mist of venom". The news that United could not afford to buy David Villa, despite Ferguson insisting the Ronaldo transfer fee was his to spend, was ignored.

His team's failings were ignored at last as he turned on the press, specifically the press on a bus leaving the Olympic Stadium in Rome after the Champions League final last May. A "member of the bus" had informed Ferguson of behaviour that this bus member was disgusted by: there were English journalists on the bus delighted by United's defeat.

It was pointed out to Ferguson that he had not been on the bus, nor any media bus for a long time. On a media bus, members are likely to become delighted by many things, which may or not include a Manchester United defeat.

Ferguson may have his players under such impressive surveillance that he is now hearing back about journalists, but the man who once called at Lee Sharpe's house and was greeted by Ryan Giggs holding a bottle of beer was left last week to deal in propaganda.

Defending his "typical Germans" comment was hard, but then defeat was harder and Ferguson was right to point out that he had never liked the flash interview immediately after a game.

So Ferguson focused on the media, on their hostility and distortions. He only meets the press before and after European games, never showing up for the post-match interviews after domestic games -- which reveals a bigger story.

Ferguson and United have dominated in England to the extent that he expects opponents to know their place. When they don't -- as we have seen in his spats with Arsene Wenger and Rafael Benitez -- then he bristles.

In Europe, they are unaware of this. Bayern can come to Old Trafford, go three goals down and still understand that no team that selects Michael Carrick can truly be said to be secure.

Once again, United were undone by the lack of fear in their opponents and Ferguson knows it. Their only triumph in a Champions League final in 10 years has come against an English side and Bayern Munich, after 1999, were going to be the last team to praise United for playing well in a game they didn't win.

Instead, they took on Ferguson again. They have grown used to his complaints in Europe which, without the rampant success he has had in England, can begin to sound jaded. Ferguson would not let go, claiming that Franck Ribery had done more to Rafael than Rafael had done to him in the incident for which the Brazilian full-back received his second yellow card.

"I'm disappointed, yes. I'm disappointed with that kind of behaviour. Their coach Louis van Gaal spoke about how fair English football is and I think he is right. It's one of the fairest in the world, but we aren't talking about English fairness."

He wasn't even talking about Scottish fairness, but the absence of German fairness from a team with a Dutch coach, Dutch captain and a Dutch match-winner. The Dutch have historically had a few things to say about the Germans, but there they were, getting along and conspiring to down Manchester United.

The season is not over on the field, not when Chelsea are the leaders in the title race. It has been a gripping Premier League, but an ordinary one.

United will be among friends today, contrasting, once again, the power they have exerted in England with their failure to do the same in Europe.

Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce promised there would be no favours for his friend today and nobody would doubt him. He has helped Ferguson off the pitch and the men not only share a friendship, they seem to share many enemies. A win today and United will be in crisis at the top of the league, although Chelsea will hope to be back and in the strongest position when they play Bolton at home on Tuesday.

United have looked vulnerable all year and once Rooney was removed last week, those vulnerabilities returned. Between the Saturday defeat to Chelsea and Bayern last Wednesday, Ferguson took massive gambles.

The selection of Darron Gibson was one as the manager searched for energy in a midfield which, apart from Darren Fletcher's vitality, lacks it. Gibson delivered it briefly. He will always score great goals but his impact on games remains fitful. Yet he remained full of life.

More importantly, Ferguson's midfield lacks players who can control the game in situations like Wednesday's. Carrick couldn't even play in the "they're all heroes now" section of the game, but the rest disappeared when the crunch came, Rafael was rightly sent off and the team retreated.

At that moment, United were without the one thing that has sustained them: their aura. In fact, they had whatever the opposite of an aura is. They felt beaten and those feelings were noticed by Bayern Munich, who had no fear against a side without Rooney, a side with no presence.

Ferguson may feel United's first-half performance was overlooked. "Try stopping them now," the ITV commentator shrieked when they went three up, but their collapse from that position was more revealing than their opening blitz.

There are reasons to feel for the greatest British manager of the past 30 years. Some commentators said it would be unfair to blame the Glazers when, on their watch, United have won multiple titles and another European Cup.But Ferguson has not been given the Ronaldo money. His last indulgent purchase was Dimitar Berbatov (although £70m for Nani, Anderson, Carrick and Owen Hargreaves could probably be described as self-indulgence too) and he must, once again, take gambles.

The debt has ensured that United cannot guard their inheritance. Ferguson is a gambler by instinct but he has been forced to take more risks than even he would normally countenance.

His line-up on Wednesday was a gamble but the reduction in United's spending has forced him to take more fundamental ones as well. Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic -- or both -- will be replaced by Chris Smalling next season. David Villa will not arrive but Javier Hernandez will, once he gets a work permit.

But he is another gamble. Thanks to the Glazers, Ferguson takes risks he doesn't like. A gambler's instinct can't be second-guessed and that is what has happened to Manchester United now. As a result, they rely on Rooney and they need Ferguson just as much because they cannot handle more uncertainty.

He wanted another European Cup and he should stay to fight for one. But there is a realisation as United crumble at Old Trafford and rule out at least one extravagant signing. They are living in the same world as many other clubs. They are loaded with debt and trying to make a saving. They are ordinary and they are mortal.

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