Sir Alex Ferguson has warned his Manchester United team they will be vulnerable to another bad defeat against Manchester City unless they drastically improve the "Cartoon Cavalcade" defending that has left their manager contemplating whether they have ever looked so susceptible at the back during his 26 years in charge.
Ferguson said he had been dismayed by United's defensive record and reported "absolutely no chance" of Nemanja Vidic featuring in Sunday's derby now his captain has pulled out of a possible comeback in their Champions League tie against Cluj at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
This season United have conceded 21 goals from 15 league fixtures, their highest since the corresponding point of the 2001-02 campaign, when they finished third. Between them, Anders Lindegaard and David de Gea have been beaten 32 times in all competitions. Last season at this stage it was 23, though that figure is skewed by the six that were conceded in one match against City. There have been four clean sheets.
Ferguson, who intends to play Wayne Rooney in an otherwise vastly changed lineup against Cluj specifically to hone his sharpness for Sunday, was particularly aggrieved by the defending in Saturday's 4-3 win at Reading and plans to arrange extra practice at dealing with set pieces before the weekend.
"We're getting punished for every ball that goes in the box at the moment but, saying that, we should still be defending far better," Ferguson said. "Reading produced some fantastic balls into the box but we do, and should, expect better. It's a worry, it's a concern. If we perform like that on Sunday, then God knows what's going to happen to us.
"You see the goals against, we've lost 32 goals this season. I can't ever remember us losing so many goals before Christmas. I must say that. So it is a concern, there's no question about that. When you look at the side City could put out, with [Mario] Balotelli, [Edin] Dzeko … all really tall players, then it's going to be a really big challenge for us."
Whether a streetwise manager such as Roberto Mancini considers the latest Vidic diagnosis as genuine or a classic pre-derby red herring remains to be seen. What cannot be disputed is that Ferguson could do with the return of his most influential defender as quickly as possible. "They [the opposition] are getting free headers and that's the issue we've got to face," he said, unwilling to elaborate on Gary Neville's analysis that United's defenders need more help from the two goalkeepers Ferguson has been rotating.
The paradox is United are not doing too badly despite the generosity of their defending, two points clear from City at the top of the league and through to the Champions League knockout stages with two games to spare.
"Our attacking possibilities have been terrific this season," Ferguson continued. "I really think Robin van Persie is not only contributing to the team himself but improving players around about him. He has given us a different perspective. That's our strength. It's rescued us all season."
As for Rooney, Ferguson was encouraged by the player's two-goal performance at Reading, when he started on the right wing because of injuries to Nani and Antonio Valencia. "That was, without question, Rooney's best performance this season. It's important for him to get into a run of games. When he is interrupted it takes him three games to get back and that's why he will definitely play [against Cluj].
"It's always been the case with Wayne. He is a really strongly built lad and he needs to be playing a lot of games to get his match fitness. He's now had two games and playing tomorrow will hopefully bring him on further."
It does, however, represent a calculated gamble, when the alternative would be not to risk any more injuries. In Ferguson's programme notes he writes about the "need to come out unscathed" and also gives a flavour of what kind of match Sunday could be. "With so much at stake I wonder if there will be a bit of caution from both clubs. Roberto Mancini and I will both have to think deeply about our selection and tactics and there may well be an element of playing safe. But don't count on it because it's a derby match when anything can happen and often does.
"The passion of the fans can easily spill over so that tactics go out of the window as emotions take over and each side will both slide into gung-ho mood. An early goal can also dictate the shape of the game so we could be in for a masterclass of attacking football from both teams."
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image: © Andrea Sartorati