LONDON — Unthinkable as it may seem, given that he has made the club the most successful in Premiership history, but a significant number of Manchester United fans are turning on manager Sir Alex Ferguson, their view that the Scot should step down this summer hardened in the wake of the Champions League defeat by AC Milan last Tuesday.

Christopher Davies

Has Ferguson taken United as far as he can?

It is a question currently hotly debated by United supporters, and defeat in Saturday’s F.A. Cup quarterfinals against Southampton — the F.A. Cup is United’s last chance of winning a trophy this season — would see more knives being sharpened.

The main accusations against Ferguson are bringing in players who have failed to make an impact and a selection policy that United supporters believe has cost the club points and Cup progress.

In the final Champions League group game last December, with its place in the next stage guaranteed, Ferguson opted to send a team of kids to Turkey where Fenerbahce beat United’s “youth side” 3-0.

Because of this, United, which had thrashed Fenerbahce 6-2 in the first game at Old Trafford, finished second in the group behind Olympique Lyon.

Yet had Ferguson, in the eyes of United followers, taken the tie more seriously and played a stronger side, victory would have seen it play Werder Bremen rather than AC Milan.

Bremen lost 10-2 on aggregate to Lyon, though Ferguson would no doubt point out, United could just as easily have drawn Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid.

Last Saturday, Ferguson left out several key players for the game at Crystal Palace, resting the likes of Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes and Ronaldo ahead of the visit to Milan.

United drew 0-0 against relegation-threatened Palace, effectively ending the title race as a true contest and harming its chances of finishing above Arsenal in second place.

The team that finishes second qualifies automatically for the Champions League while the third-place side has to playoff and defeat in the qualifying tie — always a potential banana skin — would mean demotion to the UEFA Cup. So second place is a big prize.

Finishing runnerup to Chelsea would be seen as failure for United, but being third behind Arsenal, its most bitter rival these days, would be a particularly bitter pill to swallow.

Bar a remarkable collapse by Chelsea in the final weeks, the United manager is likely to end the season having failed to lift the title in successive campaigns for the second time since United’s 27 barren championship years ended in 1993.

Ferguson’s discomfort at United’s latest Euro exit will only be increased by the knowledge that in seven latter stage knockout ties since the club lifted the Champions League trophy in 1999, his side has won just one.

For a club that regularly eases through the group stages with plenty to spare, that statistic will be seen as simply not good enough.

Such sentiments were confirmed by United captain Roy Keane who said: “The last 16 is no good to anybody is it? We live with the expectation. That is part and parcel of playing for a great club.

“Losing a game such as this is obviously disappointing for the manager, the staff and the players. But if you don’t score in two games, you don’t deserve to go through do you?”

It was a rhetorical question, and not only did United fail to score in a two-legged European tie for the first time since Borussia Dortmund knocked it out at the semifinal stage eight years ago, it failed to force Milan goalkeeper Dida into a single meaningful save in the second leg.

To rub salt in the most open of Champions League wounds, Milan’s two goals in the two games were scored by Chelsea castoff Hernan Crespo, who is on loan to the Italian club this season with the Londoners paying most of his £85,000-a-week wages.

Nevertheless, Ferguson was defiant in defeat as he prepared his team for Southampton.

“I am happy with the quality and age of this team,” he said. “They can grow up together and get better together. In that regard, I have no complaints at all.

“We have made a lot of changes over the last year or so but this is a good team already and they could go on to become very successful over the next five or six seasons.”

OVER THE LAST two years Ferguson’s entries into the transfer market have seen mixed results.

Cristiano Ronaldo (£12.2 million from Sporting Lisbon), Alan Smith (£7 million from Leeds), Gabriel Heinze (£6.9 million from Paris St. Germain) and Wayne Rooney (£25 million from Everton) have proved excellent acquisitions.

On the downside, Kleberson (£5.9 million from Paranaense), Eric Djemba-Djemba (£3.5 million from Nantes), David Bellion (£2 million from Sunderland) and Liam Miller (Bosman free from Celtic) have made minimal impacts.

Louis Saha (£12.2 million from Fulham) has suffered so many injuries over the last year the jury is still out on the French striker.

Tim Howard and Roy Carroll are ordinary goalkeepers, swapping places when one makes a decisive error. Such mistakes have cost United dearly over the past two years and a reliable goalkeeper must be the priority this summer.

Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Scholes and Keane, four players at the heart of United’s success over the past decade, are battling against the sands of time and many United followers do not share Ferguson’s optimism about the immediate future.

Having spent virtually his entire £27 million transfer budget for the coming summer on Rooney last August, it is just as well Ferguson feels the way he does because it was already anticipated that any new signings this summer would have to be funded by player sales and Tuesday night’s exit, which cost United the chance of an extra £10 million, will only have confirmed the theory.

The problem is, there is no ready-made successor. Two years ago England head coach Sven-Goran Eriksson was lined up to take over from Ferguson, who had announced his retirement, only to do a U-turn and carry on.

Keane is pursuing his UEFA coaching badge, but United would be the most demanding of starts to a managerial career.

The suspicion is that Ferguson will continue for one more season and, whatever happens, it would be a pity if the most successful manager of his generation went out under a cloud.

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