These must be the worst days of Sir Alex’s United management since his side slipped out of the Champions League group stage in December 2005.
United were on a high before travelling to Bavaria’s Allianz Arena on March 30 to face Bayern Munich in a much-anticipated European quarterfinal match.
The revered AC Milan had been routed in the previous round of Champions League games. Wayne Rooney was leading a determined pursuit of Premiership and European honors. And teammates provided supporting acts in defense and midfield.
Then, suddenly, defeat and an injury to the totem Rooney led to an unraveling of United’s fortunes.
The team suffered another calamity when losing to title rivals Chelsea some four days later.
A rousing first-half performance at home to Bayern could not prevent the finalists in 2008 and 2009 from leaving this season’s Champions League tournament with their heads bowed.
Sir Alex was mauled in the press for some ungracious criticism of the victors. His squad suffered unflattering reviews in the media. Many a pundit announced that it was old, weighed-down with fool’s gold, and in need of an overhaul.
The manager appeared to many to unfurl a white flag in this year’s chase for the Premiership when selecting as his central midfield pair, Scholes and Giggs—with a combined age of 72—away at Blackburn in United’s next match.
The home side, short on craft but long on perspiration, was defending an impressive home run of only two defeats in 28 matches.
United needed a rousing performance to blow away the disappointment of defeats. Faced with a resolute Rovers rearguard, the visitors lacked urgency in the first half and method and a cutting edge in the last 45 minutes of a must-win match.
Sir Alex was reduced to hoping aloud for other sides to do his team a favor and force Chelsea to drop points.
No wonder! United travel to City next weekend to face a neighbouring team seething after losing a bitterly-contested League Cup semifinal last January.
Worse, ex-Red Carlos Tevez is in the form of his life and will be keen to deliver the last rites on United’s title challenge.
Perhaps Ferguson reckoned as much and held back midfielders Fletcher and Carrick from the Blackburn fray to keep them fresh for the Eastlands bear pit.
Seven league defeats and the absence of Rooney suggest to many that United do not have the means to overwhelm Chelsea’s lead over the few remaining decisive fixtures.
The speed at which United are already planning for the future suggests a similar dissatisfaction at Old Trafford with the personnel currently available to the United manager.
The press speculates that Sir Alex may have a transfer budget of up to £60 million.
Some £10 million has already been spent on the Fulham defender Chris Smalling, who has been a bag of nerves since signing for United. He will join the club in the summer.
The capture of the 21-year-old Mexican striker Javier Hernandez, announced the morning after United’s stinging European elimination, was a public relations coup and perhaps a palliative for a gloomy fan base.
Newspapers and websites suggest more players are on their way to Old Trafford. Chatter is rising about swoops for Lyon’s stopper Hugo Llorris and Aston Villa’s workhorse James Milner.
United’s substantial debt and a governing transfer policy which rules out players over 26 years of age should limit United’s summer activity and inhibit the arrival of world class talents such as Valencia’s David Villa.
It is rumored that the manager could raise funds by shipping out the fallen Dimitar Berbatov and the failing Michael Carrick, the two players held responsible for United’s mixed season.
If there are takers for both stars, United’s coffers could swell by as much as £15 million.
Nevertheless, United’s room for maneuver may be reduced in a World Cup year when prices rise for players who perform well in the tournament.
Sir Alex knows this better than most having signed Carrick and the long-absent Owen Hargreaves at the height of their World Cup-inflated value.
A string of impressive displays in Euro '96 had Sir Alex chasing the Czech winger Karel Poborsky.
Two seasons later, Poborsky slipped out of Old Trafford like a thief in the night, a victim of the rise of the young David Beckham and the prevailing view that he simply wasn’t United class.
If United are forced to reach for the club’s check book only in emergency circumstances, Sir Alex would be left with some difficult choices as the countdown to his retirement continues.
He could trumpet the old mantra that Giggs and Scholes have another year at the very top level.
He could chirrup that the eventual return of Anderson and Hargreaves will be like having two new signings.
Ferguson could put his faith in Obertan and Diouf and may even claim with a straight face that Michael Owen is still the attacker to slay domestic and European defences.
No one will be fooled.
Alternatively, Sir Alex could turn to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to find reserve talents with the right stuff to be fast-tracked into the first team.
Surely, Jonny Evans is primed for more outings if he can overcome some injury niggles. Da Laet, too, may be given more first team opportunities to impress.
By bringing down the curtain on the old guard, the manger would be open to the Hansen-esque jibe that nothing is won with kids, in an era when that view is all the more grounded in fact.
This approach would require all of the manager’s coaching skills. Ferguson would have to source young, unheralded players and develop them rapidly to compete with the staff available in Madrid and Milan, where money is still tossed around like rice at a wedding.
In short, financial retrenchment and a shallow pool of available talent are thrusting United inexorably down a path heavily marked by the footprints of English rivals Arsenal.
Under Arsene Wenger, a manager mindful of his club’s £300 million debt, the north Londoners have placed their faith in youth development and conservative recruitment.
Such a policy has won respect from "real world" financial experts and earned the praise of the purists who admire Wenger’s commitment to his youth academy.
The trouble with this approach is that despite Wenger’s many gifts and his careful husbandry of Arsenal’s resources, the greatest living Alsatian has failed to guide Arsenal to a single trophy since 2005.
Will such a lack of glory and titles be in United’s future too?
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