LONDON — In the ideal world most neutrals would like both Manchester United and Chelsea to lose when the clubs meet at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Christopher Davies

Chelsea has overtaken United as the least popular club in the Premiership over the past year, its bottomless pit of transfer money courtesy of billionaire owner Roman Abramovich and the arrogance that too often comes with such riches earning the Premiership champion an ignominious image.

Success, of course, breeds jealousy and at least United’s money over the years has been generated by football rather than oil.

However, its sustained domination of English football has inevitably made it the most prized of Premiership scalps, yet, after a decade and a half of almost non-stop success, United is in turmoil.

The past week could hardly have gone worse for the Reds. It started with a 4-1 defeat at Middlesbrough that launched an unprecedented volley of personal abuse from captain Roy Keane on the club’s television channel MUTV, and continued at the Stade de France on Wednesday with a 1-0 defeat by Lille that leaves United’s Champions League hopes hanging by a thread.

Some might say Chelsea is the perfect opponent to bring the best out in United, though Sir Alex Ferguson would no doubt privately prefer not to play a team unbeaten in the Premiership this year.

A section of the United fans in Paris booed the team after the second European failure in two games against Lille — remarkably United has taken one point out of six off unfancied French opposition, while failing to score over 180 minutes against them.

United’s recent record in UEFA’s most prestigious club competition leaves much to be desired.

In four Champions League Group D matches so far United has scored only two goals, and taking out qualifying games, United has failed to score in six of the last seven matches. It has won only one of its last 11 Champions League games, while away from home it is two years since the 1999 winner tasted victory.

There is a growing disenchantment with Ferguson with a significant number of the Old Trafford faithful believing the Scot should have retired two seasons ago when he initially announced his departure.

While players such as Ronaldo, Gabriel Heinze, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney have been successes, Ferguson’s judgment was questioned with Kleberson, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Liam Miller and David Bellion, who proved nowhere near the standard required at United.

Younger players — John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher — have not progressed as their initial potential promised.

Louis Saha, who was rarely injured at Fulham, has spent most of his 10 months at the club on the Old Trafford treatment table, while Alan Smith seems to have gone backward a year after arriving from Leeds the summer before last.

Most puzzling is the loss of form of Rio Ferdinand, a pale shadow of the classy defender he has been since establishing himself at West Ham eight years ago.

Ferguson’s team selections, notably resting Rooney for key games, plus the tactics — apparently the work of assistant manager Carlos Queiroz who is known as Queirozzzzzzzz by fans — are considered a far cry from the adventurous style that is the tradition of the club.

“Losing matches does not help confidence, that is for sure,” said Ferguson. “But we cannot afford to start feeling sorry for ourselves. It is hard for the young players. We cannot expect them to show the same experience the older ones have. We just have to see it through. It is not a problem. We just have to trust them.”

Keane seems less confident about United’s future.

Last Monday, the midfielder went on MUTV and was so critical of just about everything at the club that the interview was not shown — given the nature of the player it is impossible to believe what he said was not pre-planned, though exactly what his agenda was is unclear.

The fans agreed with Keane’s views, some of which have filtered out, though whether a captain should be so critical of his teammates in public is questionable. It’s a safe bet that the other players would have heard Keane’s forthright views in the dressing room, but that is where they usually stay.

A 5,000-strong traveling army of United supporters in Paris chanted the Irishman’s name before and after the defeat by Lille and, tellingly, at the final whistle when they turned on their team, with the exception of Ruud van Nistelrooy.

“Without question, those fans want to see us win,” said Ferguson, who has refused to comment on Keanegate. “They have followed us through thick and thin, which is what real fans do. They were like that when we had not won the title for 20 years and I am sure they will be like that again.”

THE PROBLEM the Manchester United board has — and this is not a new dilemma — is that there is no ready-made natural and available successor to Sir Alex Ferguson.

When he announced his retirement two seasons ago, the word is that England manager Sven-Goran Erikkson was allegedly lined up, and when Fergie heard about this, and the Swede’s apparent salary, it was part of the Scot’s decision to “un-retire.”

Martin O’Neill, who has taken time off from Celtic to care for his wife who is ill, has been a longtime favorite but the reason he stepped back seems likely to be an ongoing one.

Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho would not leave Arsenal and Chelsea to join United, while Steve McClaren, who was Ferguson’s assistant at Old Trafford, has said he will honor his five-year Middlesbrough contract.

Of course, Eriksson could be tempted to leave England after the 2006 World Cup finals, though his image has taken a bit of a battering for his off-field excesses.

This observer has long believed Guus Hiddink, who is doing such a superb job at PSV and coaches Australia part-time, has the experience, personality and management skills to be in charge of United.

The Dutchman, who has also managed Real Madrid — where he won the Spanish title — and South Korea when it reached the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup, would be a popular choice if the challenge of the Premiership appealed to him.

So would Roy Keane, though whether the board would gamble with someone who has never managed before is questionable — and no one knows the Irishman’s ambitions after he quits playing, which could be next summer.

Of course, United is now owned by the Glazer family, which also control the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Americans would lean heavily on chief executive David Gill for advice when it comes to selecting Ferguson’s successor.

The Glazers are keeping a “watching brief” on current events at Old Trafford but will not be at Sunday’s match against Chelsea, preferring to attend the Bucs’ game against the Carolina Panthers instead.

The identity of the next United manager is unknown, but if the Reds lose at home to Chelsea rest assured the calls for a more imminent appointment will become much louder.

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