CL exit exposes Man United’s flaws


Three weeks ago, Sir Alex Ferguson walked out of a UEFA news conference when he was asked a question by a reporter that began: “With the two best teams in the Premier League struggling in Europe. . . “

Ferguson cut him short and replied: “Struggling? Are you serious? We’re not struggling,” and stormed off.

It was also last month when Ferguson said Manchester United was “making great strides toward Barcelona.”

The reality is the gap between last season’s Champions League finalists is widening significantly and the only strides United will be making are toward teams such as Metalist Kharkiv in the Europa League.

Ferguson, who holds the written media in contempt, does not like to be contradicted by a football hack, but he had little defense, like his team, after United’s 2-1 defeat in Basel that saw it knocked out of the Champions League.

To have failed to qualify from a group containing teams from Switzerland, Portugal and Romania, which Ferguson would have hand-picked, suggests a European superpower on the wane and United got what it deserved after a string of wretched displays: elimination.

While Manchester City also lost out in a far more difficult group, Roberto Mancini has so many outstanding players he can be far more confident about the future than Ferguson. United has failed to replace icons such as Edwin van der Sar, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane and Gary Neville and its midfield, particularly, lacks a playmaker in the class of Wesley Sneijder or a dominant ball-winner.

David de Gea has made several crucial errors as he tries to fill the void left by van der Sar, Ashley Young’s form has dipped alarmingly since September, Park Ji Sung is graft not craft, there is none of the traditional firepower in attack and the humiliation of playing in the Europa League will affect United, Champions League finalists in three of the last four years, far more than City.

A season that has seen United beaten 6-1 at home by City — the teams meet in the F.A. Cup third round — knocked out of the League Cup by a weakened Crystal Palace side and dumped out of the Champions League after only beating Otelul Galati is in danger of falling apart.

Ferguson and United have proven critics wrong before, but the decisive loss in Basel was an unforeseen embarrassment, and while many will gloat in the club’s knockout the competition is poorer for its absence.

THE FOOTBALL Association was celebrating victory when UEFA’s appeals committee reduced Wayne Rooney’s ban from three games to two, meaning he will be eligible for England’s third Euro 2012 game against Ukraine.

It claimed a three-match suspension was excessive in a tournament of a maximum of six games, whereas, in domestic football three games in a 38-match season is different.

A fair point but the F.A.’s disciplinary system has long been riddled with hypocrisy and double standards.

Earlier this week it charged Liverpool’s Luis Suarez with allegedly making a one-finger gesture at Fulham fans (most of whom, I am sure, were truly horrified and traumatized by it). Yet the F.A. fails to punish the hatchet-men for potentially leg-breaking tackles, claiming under FIFA regulations it is powerless to take action against a player if the referee has seen the incident.

The weakness in the F.A.’s argument is that there is no such FIFA ruling and Sepp Blatter, the president of world football’s governing body, has said the F.A. can take retrospective action if the referee has made an obvious error.

Article 77 of FIFA’s disciplinary regulations states: “The (national association’s) Disciplinary Committee is responsible for . . . rectifying obvious errors in the referee’s disciplinary decisions.” In other words if the referee has seen a challenge as a yellow card offense and it is proven to be worse, the F.A. can act.

However, the F.A. chooses to ignore this, claiming the rule doesn’t exist where there is, seen above, a regulation stating the opposite, thus allowing flying elbows and bone-crunching tackles the referee has not seen or not sanctioned to be punished.

FIFA disciplinary statutes also state: “An expulsion automatically incurs suspension from the next subsequent match.” Not in English football, it doesn’t. The F.A. allows clubs to appeal against wrongful dismissal, thus going against FIFA’s regulations.

While not condoning what the Uruguay international did, too often the F.A. punishes easy targets like Suarez but are too lily-livered to ensure a natural sense of justice against violence. No player has ever sustained a serious injury because of a hand gesture.

The F.A. should charge itself with bringing the game into disrepute.

IT IS UNUSUAL to find a man who trained to be a lawyer and has a huge interest in the National Football League to be a Premier League manager. But then Martin O’Neill has never fit the stereotypical image of being the “boss” as players in English football still tend to call their manager.

O’Neill has the ability to make every football writer believe he is his favorite reporter, but none is, though he is charming to all of us. Eloquent and intelligent, the former Northern Ireland international does not do slips of the tongue, his legal background taught him that, while such is his energy, enthusiasm and personality even fans of rival clubs like him.

Football is better for O’Neill’s return with Sunderland 16 months after leaving Aston Villa, which finished sixth in the last three of his four seasons in charge. He resigned unexpectedly, the club citing that O’Neill and the club’s American owner Randy Lerner “no longer shared a common view as to how to move forward.”

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.