Fraught winter ahead for Ferguson

Every time, Alex Ferguson has delighted in proving his doubters wrong, so it takes a brave man to point the finger at Manchester United this time. By Martyn Ziegler.

Sir Alex Ferguson has seen off his doubters so many times that he could claim to be the Mark Twain of football: reports of his demise are greatly exaggerated.

It has become part of English Premier League tradition that every few years Manchester United have to be written off: Fergie has lost his appetite; his unerring eye for a player has gone; the team is too young/too old; United can't cope with the new big spenders on the block.

Every time, Ferguson has delighted in proving his doubters wrong, so it takes a brave man to point the finger at United this time.

Or a foolish one. Deep breath, here goes...

Sir Alex Ferguson has not lost his appetite or his touch — in fact he has worked wonders with a squad that is lacking in quality compared with others of the last 20 years.

The squad is not too young nor too old, but it is not too good either. Take away Nemanja Vidic, their best defender of recent seasons but now facing up to a year on the sidelines, and Darren Fletcher, an experienced midfield battler, and suddenly the squad looks sparse.

There is Wayne Rooney of course, now the mainstay of the United side, but apart from him there is a lack of creative spark. In Phil Jones, Ferguson did manage to buy probably the best young England player to have emerged since Rooney, but Jones is best at stopping goals.

Who has there been to take the place of Paul Scholes? Which world-class striker has replaced Carlos Tevez? Who has there been to terrify the opposition in the way that Cristiano Ronaldo did?

Nani? Antonio Valencia? Good players sure, but not great.

Who is going to step into Ryan Giggs' boots? — if he ever retires that is. Ferguson has insisted he is happy with United's form but until their 4-1 victory over Wolves they had not scored more than a single goal in the league since October 1. The manner of their failure to qualify for the Champions League knock-out phase, beaten by Basle in a fairly straightforward manner, will also have set the alarm bells ringing.

It is difficult to imagine Ferguson with ear pressed to the radio in eager anticipation of hearing the draw to decide Manchester United's opponents in the last 32 of the Europa League — the ‘penalty' of their failure to qualify for the UEFA Champions League last 16, as he admitted after Basle.

Ferguson's mind will probably be more focused on the January transfer window, because United more than any other of the top seven clubs in the Premier League need reinforcements. The United manager has always disliked the January window intensely, viewing it as a venue for panic buys and over-valued players.

Recent history would back him up: Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll were the big-money moves last January and look what a miserable 12 months it has been for those two.

Ferguson has little choice though but to ask the Glazers to wield the chequebook and turn the season around.

United have all but lost their aura of invincibility: Manchester City's 6-1 thumping and the humbling by Basle have led to that. Once gone, it is tremendously difficult to regain, and the longer it is missing the harder it is to get back.

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Wales assistant manager Raymond Verheijen was probably never a contender to succeed the late Gary Speed, but if he had been his tactless comment on Twitter has been enough to make sure that there will be no new contract when his current deal expires.

Verheijen said he hoped the Football Association of Wales would “respect Gary's wish so Osian Roberts (FAW technical director) and myself can lead the team to Brazil”.

Although the Dutchman was appointed by Speed, it is common knowledge in football circles that his personality irked the Wales manager.

And even if there had been any chance of a new contract, his Twitter comment has upset the FAW leadership to the extent that the prospect of any new deal has evaporated. Good riddance too.

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Andy Carroll is to pick up a reported loyalty bonus of GBP150,000 from Liverpool after managing to stay at Anfield for a whole year! Heartiest congratulations to the big man, and well done too to his agent — whoever he was, for that issue still appears to be shrouded in confusion — for insisting on the loyalty clause instead of any cash-for-goals bonus.

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