Ferguson in no mood to gamble on draw

 

Given that one of Alex Ferguson's favourite anecdotes concerns his mother and father's Saturday morning tipping exploits, and how he caught the bug from them, the Manchester United manager must have flinched with surprise and a strange annoyance when seeing the odds on a Fiorentina victory at Old Trafford this evening. As Ferguson would acknowledge, generous is not just the name of a Derby winner.

Fiorentina, laden with exciting talent and with a victory over United already in this Champions' League group, are 4-1 with English bookmakers to win tonight.

Gabriel Batistuta, one of the most feared strikers on the planet, scorer of the first goal in the Fiorentina victory in Florence last November and with a point to prove after publicly declaring his ambition to play for United during Argentina's trip to Wembley last month, is a lavish 6-1 bet to be the game's first goal-scorer.

Thus, Fiorentina to win 1-0 with Batistuta the scorer works out at a very nice 34-1 combination. There will be no better offer at Cheltenham all week and Ferguson, a visitor to the racecourse tomorrow for the Gold Cup, would surely be tempted were such a proposition not heretical to his United mentality.

United, whose form of late has been akin to a champion hurdler bundling through the obstacles rather than clearing them gloriously, are rated an anorexic 4-7 chance. Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are all shorter than Batistuta to put the ball in the net first, while Teddy Sheringham is the same price as the Argentinian.

It is a typically devious bookmaking ploy. No-one bar Ferguson knows which two of the four will be permed together. Solskjaer may have been the provider of the decisive goals against Liverpool and Bordeaux but, though the Norwegian played in the 3-1 win over Derby County last Saturday, his place must be under renewed threat from Cole. Ultimately, Cole and Yorke represent United's number one strike pairing, and Cole is fit after being rested against Derby. Yorke's hat-trick, meanwhile, guarantees him his starting role.

Ferguson was predictably reticent on the subject yesterday and probably feels that it is in defence where his greatest selection dilemma lies. Mark Bosnich, absent through no choice of his own for the two Bordeaux games, should continue to benefit from Raimond van der Gouw's blunder in France last Tuesday, and Jaap Stam and Denis Irwin, neither of whom were even on the bench on Saturday, are ready to resume their normal positions.

It is who partners Stam which is of most interest. On Saturday, Henning Berg stood alongside Mikael Silvestre, yet Berg's error for the second goal in Florence could be a factor in Ferguson's mind. Stam coming in for Berg would be the most straightforward transplant.

Silvestre, however, after being the focus of his manager's praise only three weeks ago, has seen his rating slip, especially during the Liverpool match when he was so casual in possession and apparently disorientated in defence that he was moved to left back and Gary Neville was forced into central duties beside Stam.

When Ferguson said yesterday: "We need to be more consistent in our defending. There have been careless moments which annoy and frustrate me," Silvestre will have felt his ears burning.

It would be unfair on Silvestre, though, if he was painted as a poor player. His qualities are indisputable and, as Ferguson pointed out, they may not be put to the test given Fiorentina's natural inclination to defend in numbers, even at home.

"Fiorentina's mentality is to come and defend and try to get something on the counter," said Ferguson. His analysis is probably correct. It will not have escaped the Italians that of all the possible scenarios in the group, four more points, one at United and three at home to Bordeaux next Tuesday, will see them qualify. Even if Valencia win in Bordeaux tonight, a draw with Fiorentina would not be desperate news for United. They would go to Spain next week knowing another point would assure qualification.

But Ferguson will not want it to come down to that and will push for a victory tonight that would mean United's presence in the quarter-finals is won.