Neither team would worry Europe's best

 

IT'S FUNNY to recall that they had a poll in the Manchester Evening News last summers after Alex Ferguson had allowed three of the most prominent players in his side leave and the main finding was that just about all of the supporters wanted him to be sacked from his job because they thought that he had lost the plot. It doesn't take a genius to guess what the result would be if they did it again now.

I've said it before on these pages, but this has really been the most outstanding year in Ferguson's career and Saturday's win over Liverpool demonstrated once again what a great structure he has established within the club.

Here was a team that wasn't playing particularly well, facing a side that they had struggled to get the better of in the league but, when it mattered, they did what they had to come away with the trophy - well Eric Cantona did what he had to.

If ever you had to bet on a team to win a game when they are not playing well then this Manchester United side is the one you would want to have your money on. They have such terrific assets in the likes of Schmeichel, Keane, Cantona and Giggs, who can pluck little pieces of magic out of the air, so that a game, no matter how poorly things appear to be going, is never dead.

On the other hand Liverpool could hardly have looked for a more off form United to face for the cup, but rather than punish their opponents' shortcomings they mirrored them. If they feel a little hard done by just now, when they reflect on the game they will realise that they got what they deserved from it.

Roy Evans' side were overpowered in midfield, where John Barnes and Jamie Redknapp spent their time playing in front of Nicky Butt and Roy Keane instead of getting behind them, while there was a serious lack of directness about the team's play overall.

Stan Collymore had an off day, but neither he nor Robbie Fowler got the service that they deserve, while their other main threat, Steve McManaman wasn't getting possession in positions where he could really cause problems for the United defence.

To me Liverpool still look a couple of players short of the complete article, while the way they are playing doesn't really seem to suit the personnel that they have. They are short some aggression in midfield, someone who can win the ball and pass it the way Steve McMahon or Graeme Souness used to while a flat back four would probably prove more rewarding for them.

As it was on Saturday, in a game that everyone had built up to be a showpiece final, the Liverpool side looked jaded, and while United did do better and Cantona's goal was superb, neither side, and not very many of the individual players, looked especially good.

From that point of view it will be interesting to hear back from Europe what the reaction to this game is. Certainly the performances of the English players will not have done much to frighten managers of teams in Euro 96, while managers faced with the prospect of coming up against England's best clubs will probably not be unduly worried.

For United, though, Europe must now be the priority and, like Liverpool, they must speculate if they are to accumulate. Over the length of the season they have looked to be a side of some quality, but things will be much harder for them from now on. In Europe, where the standard generally, but particularly in defence, will be much higher, the youngsters will find it harder to cope, while even at home they will have to learn to deal with no longer being surprise packages.

At this stage in their careers they must wonder what all the fuss is about. You go out there, enjoy yourself and collect your medal before heading home, but for all their talent they have a lot of hard learning ahead of them.

For that reason Ferguson must really strengthen his options if his team are to be considered real contenders for the European Cup.

He needs a central defender of real quality, a playmaking midfielder with guile and an attacker with the proven ability to unlock good defences. With these Ferguson would have the ability to challenge, without them there is likely to be more embarrassment in the Champions League and a lot of time to concentrate on domestic success again after Christmas.

(In an interview with Emmet Malone)