| Manchester United goalkeeper Fabien Barthez reacts after his team’s shocking defeat to Manchester City at Maine Road in Manchester Saturday. Manchester City won 3-1. (Reuters)
Manchester: Alex Ferguson has spent a lifetime producing teams that reflect the best parts of his character — aggressive, resilient, intimidating.
Yet as his Manchester United side sulked away from Maine Road after their 1-3 defeat to Manchester City on Saturday, it was tempting to conclude that, in the twilight of the Scot’s career, his infamous zeal was on the wane.
For the Ferguson team that suffered the Old Trafford club’s worst derby day in 13 years was timid, error-prone and intimidated and as far from being championship contenders as they have been since Ferguson took over in 1986.
So it was interesting to note his response to the humiliation. he took the rare decision to criticise his players in public.
After explaining that his feted individuals had “let us down”, and after wondering whether he “should let the fans in the dressing room to show the players how they feel”, Ferguson turned his thoughts to the future.
“We will get a reaction, alright,” he said. “We will assess this on the training ground and put things right there, not in public. We’ve reacted well to pressure in the past.”
His anger was justified. His players let him down in what was the worst performance by United since they lost 1-3 at Liverpool, their other most hated rivals, almost a year ago to the day.
It is clear, then, that Ferguson does still have fire in the belly. But in years to come, after he has finished trying to instil the same thing in his squad, those words may be viewed as his last stand.
At the home of their local enemies, United fans, with memories of a glorious decade still fresh in the memory, could hardly believe what they were seeing.
Mistakes from Rio Ferdinand, Fabien Barthez and, in particular, Gary Neville, gifted goals to Nicolas Anelka and two to Shaun Goater as City secured their first derby win since they thrashed Ferguson’s United 5-1 in 1989.
This time last year, Barthez and Laurent Blanc were under the spotlight for a series of clangers that undermined United’s challenge.
On top of the Liverpool defeat, they lost five other games before Christmas, and, despite a valiant rally with the help of Ruud van Nistelrooy’s goals, the title was always out of reach. This season is taking on a similar feel.
Goater expressed his surprise at how often City created chances, even against a defence containing the world’s most expensive defender in 30-million-pound man Ferdinand. The England international was bought to shore up the rearguard but he was given a torrid time by Anelka.
Yet the human error, or the lack of inspiration up front — United have scored just 17 goals in 13 games this term — is not the worst of it. Far more damaging to their cause was the meek manner of their capitulation at Maine Road.
Ironically, Ferguson revealed his fear last week that his side could not match Arsenal’s or Liverpool’s physical presence. That view was given an inadvertent endorsement by the performances of United’s midfield duo on Saturday — Juan Sebastian Veron and Philip Neville.
Veron was seen shaking his head more than once when things did not go his way on the pitch. It was a childish reaction which did him no favours. The Argentine was substituted in the second half.
How United missed Roy Keane, absent through injury and suspension, not to mention Nicky Butt (injured) and David Beckham (suspended). In their absence, an unheralded City midfield of Danny Tiatto, Marc-Vivien Foe and Eyal Berkovic ran riot.
Beckham will return for United’s game against Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League on Wednesday, and more importantly for their next Premier League game, at West Ham United on November 17.
But Butt is out for several weeks and Keane is not due to come back from hip surgery until January. It is hard to see how United will prosper without them in matches against Newcastle United, Liverpool and Arsenal over the coming month — a period Ferguson has already identified as crucial to title hopes.
After their humbling derby defeat in 1989, Ferguson pledged to get a reaction from his club. Eight months later, United had won the FA Cup and were on their way to seven Premier League titles, three more FA Cups, one European Cup, one European Cup Winners Cup and an English League Cup.
Those are standards Ferguson has set and which his current United will live or die by. They are fifth in the table, eight points behind leaders Liverpool and with a resurgent Chelsea and Everton above them. City are only five points behind them.
On Saturday, a publicity poster from a local Manchester newspaper suggested one half of the city would report in sick for work on Monday morning, unable to stand the embarrassment of a derby defeat among their peers. It is the Reds who are sick to the stomach at the moment, and that is just in the United squad.