MANCHESTER, Nov 23 ― Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson made a swift exit from the news conference room when faced with a question about his ‘struggling’ team whose defensive shambles have complicated what should have been a straightforward Champions League campaign.
The three-times European champions are facing the prospect of finishing second in Group C ― and even that is not guaranteed ― which would make a last-16 meeting with one of the other big guns like Real Madrid or Barcelona a very real danger.
Two defensive blunders on Tuesday cost them two goals as they were held 2-2 by Benfica at Old Trafford in a result that put the Portuguese through to the knockout stage and on course to finish as group winners.
Despite defender Phil Jones’ third-minute own goal and the same player’s poor back pass that led to goalkeeper David de Gea's bad attempt at clearing to hand Pablo Aimar an easy finish, Ferguson maintained his team had not played badly.
“We played so well tonight, we made a lot of great chances and played some really good football,” he told reporters.
“I have no problems with my players at all. But that's the game, it’s a cruel one at times and it was cruel for us tonight.”
When one reporter at the post-match news conference asked whether the fact United and Premier League leaders Manchester City were struggling in Europe’s elite competition showed that standards were slipping in England, Ferguson dismissed the idea.
“We’re not struggling,” he replied, already out of his seat and halfway towards the door.
With just two wins out of five games, they are not cruising either.
They need a draw in next month's final group game at Basel to reach the knockout stage for the sixth successive year and Ferguson was confident he would have more players to call upon after being hampered by injuries and suspensions.
Captain Nemanja Vidic, whose return from injury had played major part in United stringing together five wins with clean sheets before the Benfica game, will be back from a two-match European ban while fellow defender Chris Smalling is fit again.
The English champions were without Wayne Rooney yesterday after he picked up a hip injury at the weekend and the striker remains doubtful for Saturday’s Premier League game at home to Newcastle United.
“Wayne wasn’t ready,” Ferguson said. ‘If he had been 70 per cent I might have put him on the bench.”
“We will have a look at him over the next couple of days.”
United will need no reminders that Basel, who would qualify ahead of them with a win, are no pushovers after the Swiss side came from behind to lead 3-2 at Old Trafford in September before a last-minute Ashley Young equaliser.
“The reminder to us when we go to Basel is that we threw that game away,” Ferguson said.
“We have an opportunity to correct that freak result on their own ground. It is not going to be easy but maybe I will have a few more players back and my selections will be wider and more varied.”
“The chips are down for us but I have every confidence in my team.” ― Reuters