Sir Alex Ferguson is 69 years old and so was surely joking when he claimed Wednesday that he may carry on as Manchester United boss for “another 25 years.”
However, Ferguson’s decision to look to the future as his side beat Romanian champion Otelul Galati 2-0 in the Champions League rather than dwell upon his latest significant milestone was revealing about his current mindset.
Ferguson took over at Old Trafford on Nov. 6, 1986, yet his success at the club was far from immediate. A quarter of a century in, he is regarded as a living legend, having led United to 12 English Premier League titles and the European Cup on two occasions.
Yet despite this result, sealed by goals from Antonio Valencia and a late deflected effort from Wayne Rooney that put the result beyond doubt, all is not well in the world of Ferguson right now.
The team’s 6-1 crushing at the hands of local rival Manchester City a week and a half ago not only still stings, but put United off the pace set by City in the EPL title race. Losing the stranglehold on that crown is an unsavory prospect for United at any time, to do so to their crosstown neighbor would be unthinkable.
The response Ferguson was looking for hasn't occurred. Last weekend’s 1-0 victory at Everton was unconvincing, as was Wednesday’s stuttering win against an overmatched opponent in Galati.
When quizzed about his satisfaction at having been in charge for such a lengthy period, Ferguson said: “I am more worried about the next 25 years.” The quote was perhaps more a gruff response to an issue he feels irrelevant rather than a genuine intention to remain in the hot seat into his mid-90s.
But Ferguson surely senses that this is a pivotal time for United. With City backed by huge investment that will not cease until silverware is claimed, winning the EPL could be tougher this year than any other. United looked superb in the early weeks of the campaign, with the retirement of Paul Scholes seamlessly offset by the emergence of talented youngster Tom Cleverley in midfield.
Uncertainty in defense remains an issue though, one which has not been helped by Rio Ferdinand’s severe form slump. At times United surprisingly looks to lack energy. With Galati not expected to pose a serious threat, Ferguson rang some changes, with Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov both coming into the front line.
Once more, there was little sparkle, and that City thumping may have had the dual effect of inflicting a painful defeat and dealing an ongoing blow to the United confidence.
“It’s painful even to think about it,” Ferguson said. “But I don’t want the players to forget it totally because it must serve as a reminder of the necessity of keeping our concentration levels high. The score against us only reached such high proportions because of our own stupidity.”
There was never any likelihood of an upset against Galati, which simply didn’t have the belief or firepower. Yet the lack of creativity in the United performance was startling, even though Owen’s early injury proved unsettling.
It is not uncommon for United to saunter unconvincingly through the group stages before bursting into life once the Champions League reaches its knockout phase. And despite the doubts, the win did put United at the top of Group C, albeit level on eight points with Benfica.
Ferguson though, knows more is needed and expected. Despite the length of his tenure, he understands patience is a luxury he cannot afford right now.
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