Fratton farce puts title hopes in melting pot

THIS is a Europe-free zone today and not just because I am writing before the Roma match kicks-off (literally or figuratively).

As ironically, Paul Scholes said on the morning of the ill-fated first leg, it’s the Premiership that is his and his teammates bread and butter, not the “bonus” of the Champions League.

That “bread and butter” is suddenly looking rather rancid coloured after the humiliation at Fratton Park. Last week I had an email from a reader chastising me for even mentioning Shevchenko’s challenge-extending stunner at Watford and suggested I drop the caution and “embrace United’s inevitable title”.

Hmm. That was what I never liked about Marxism too: all that “historical inevitability”....seemed to be asking for a slap, really.

Equally in need of a slap this past weekend was, of course, Rio Ferdinand. Still not quite Old Trafford’s most popular player amongst supporters to put it mildly, his almost comic double faux paux prompted one embittered Red online to comment: “€50 million, for in effect, two potentially title losing own goals (sic) — we’d have been better off setting fire to the bank notes.”

Absurdly OTT, admittedly, and overlooking the fact that Rio did quite well in Rome, but it should also be noted that Rio is rated the worst of our front line defenders this season by the official Barclay’s index and has still not become the Beckenbauer-esque ball player everyone’s been predicting him to be for the past decade. It is now deeply unfashionable amongst Reds to criticise Rio since he “committed” himself to us, so I shall leave the issue there for now — but I still reckon we miss Vidic from the team far more than we would ever miss Rio. And he certainly could have picked a better moment to pick a public fight with the Rome referee for the supposed lack of deference shown by the official to the self-proclaimed footballing aristocrats. If the ref viewed the tape of the Portsmouth goal, I suspect the only thing the chuckling German would feel obliged to defer to would be Rio’s evidently superior comedy skills. Indeed, stick a red nose on him and Ferdinand could have been at Barnham and Baileys.

In the meantime, it is Fergie, not Ferdie, who remains our pre-eminent red nose and his claret-coloured proboscis was certainly throbbing at DefCon 1 at full time. But in fairness to Rio — and oh, how I always hate writing that — the real blame for Saturday’s blundering must surely lie with the manager rather than with his hapless centre back.

I know I keep going on about this but surely Fratton Park, with it’s entirely underwhelming performances by our “valuable squad members”, offered further evidence of the bankruptcy of Fergie’s season-long argument that it is an “insult” to question the squad’s overall quality?

Kieron Richardson, in particular, must surely have stamped his own exit visa with a display that has incited blood-curdling oaths across the Red planet.

It is amusing that, having quietly shelved 4-5-1 without ever admitting he had been wrong in his three-year dispute with fans over it’s use, Alex has now planted his standard in another patch of very boggy, shifting ground that looks like it might swallow him up.

Indeed, he half-conceded as much with his announcement that he will be recalling every single one of the loan players in May, “because there have been times this season where we have been seriously understrength”.

There is a whole other argument that spins off here, which has Glazernomics forcing the loan (to reduce wages and encourage buyers), whilst at the same time failing to reinforce the squad. Doubtless, we’ll be hearing a lot more of that kind of thing, should the improbable happen, i.e. United collapse their way to the finishing line as Kieron and Co. hurl points away as fast as we dig our way through the bottom of the squad-barrel.

But come on: all the above has been fun in a “let’s have a nostalgic bitch-a-thon” way. Yet do Reds really fear such a biblically scaled comeuppance?

Rio isn’t about to turn into William Prunier, after all — and Fergie has certainly inspired his men to recover from worse setbacks than Saturday’s football.

Nevertheless, Red eyes that had become focused on European dates and continental flights are suddenly looking again at a domestic fixture list they had all but taken for granted. And on it they see that most of the teams we have left to face may well be crap — but they are almost all crap that has something to fight for, such as avoiding relegation, and thus constitute a far more difficult proposition than a decent side with settled prospects such as Arsenal or Liverpool.

The Manchester derby, for example, has been transformed as a prospect within 24 hours from the likely scene of crowning triumph to potential disaster zone. “Embrace the title”?

Not just yet, dear reader. In fact, after Fratton Park, I’m not even going to put money on us winning this weekend’s semi-final. Pessimistic service is resumed!

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