Ferguson urges players to keep up the keepy-uppies
Cristiano Ronaldo has been served notice of the fact that Roma will be out to avenge the trickery which caused them such offence in the Stadio Olimpico on Tuesday night, but his manager made short shrift of that threat yesterday.
"I don't care," said Sir Alex Ferguson. "We encourage it – and we encourage it in all the players. In this modern era, it is a refreshing change to see players who are not going to be intimidated by opponents and are just going to keep on doing what they are doing."
Ferguson has not been entirely consistent on this theme in recent weeks. He argued yesterday that the little exhibition of keepy-uppy displayed by his midfielder Nani in the dying minutes of the 4-0 FA Cup drubbing of Arsenal at Old Trafford was equally innocent. "I looked at the video of the Arsenal game again after what Arsène [Wenger] said and I didn't see that Nani was show-boating," he said. "He was getting pressure from his opponent and he kept the ball up, but I've seen many players do that. I saw Thierry Henry do it in a Cup final against Southampton [in 2003]." But in the immediate aftermath of the Arsenal incident he said he had told Nani that he "didn't need to do that".
There is a line between expression and deliberate humiliation, of course, and though Ronaldo's comments about last season's 7-1 defeat of Roma in his autobiographical book Moments may represent the latter ("When we were 6-0 up, one of their players said 'don't do any more dribbles', almost begging," Ronaldo is quoted as saying) Ferguson believes those red-booted step-overs represent the former. "We don't encourage players to humiliate opponents and I don't think we do that," he said. Ronaldo's display in Rome certainly didn't smack of exhibitionism and the suggestions by Roma director Bruno Conti that he would have kicked Ronaldo had he been playing seem like a serious over-reaction.
Ferguson said yesterday that United are close to agreeing a new deal with Rio Ferdinand, who has two years to run on his current contract. He also expects his captain Gary Neville to return to the side before the season is out and the defender is expected back in the squad for the first time in over a year for tomorrow's trip to Middlesbrough. Nani is expected to have recovered from a thigh strain in time for Wednesday's Roma return.
With four wins and a draw required to see the title back at Old Trafford, but only two home matches left, United are looking to find some good away form. Indifferent displays at places such as West Ham, Derby and Tottenham since December and the difficult victory at Reading prove that winning is not as easy as it seems destined to be against modest opposition on the road.
The United manager will challenge the FA's charge of improper conduct, levelled at both him and assistant Carlos Quieroz, following the FA Cup defeat to Portsmouth.