Strictly speaking Sir Alex Ferguson’s absence last night was very much with leave, as the Manchester United manager spent the night in the port city of Valencia, ostensibly scouting the club’s next Champions League opponents. The Scot sat beside goalkeeping coach Eric Steel at the Mestalla as the home side drew 1-1 with Atlético de Madrid.
Ferguson missed his side’s 5-2 victory over Scunthorpe United in the Carling Cup, with the club’s official position that the Manchester United manager was in Valencia scouting the Southern Spanish opponents. However, Steele’s involvement prompts an assumption that Ferguson’s mission had a touch of smokescreen about it, with coveted 19-year-old Madrid goalkeeper David De Gea the true target.
Even so, Ferguson’s absence last night is remarkable, not because the Carling Cup is a serious priority in comparison to Champions League advancement but that he has never chosen to do so before. United has specialist scouts and many opportunities this season to run-the-rule over De Gea.
Indeed, the Scot’s previous absences from match duty came against Manchester City in November 2000, when he was at his son’s wedding, and then the 3-2 defeat to Middlesbrough in February 2004, when he attended a family funeral.
“It’s important after the Rangers games that we prepare properly and get a good view of Valencia, who’ve started their season very well,” claimed Phelan.
“He chose to go and watch the Valencia game. We need to go there knowing what we’re up against. He’s the manager and he had to make a decision.”
“We put a big value on the Carling Cup. We’ve never set out to demean the Carling Cup. We’re holders, we’ve done that two years in a row and you can see from the players’ attitude that we want to keep hold of it.”
Ferguson’s absence leaves a number of questions though, with the manager previously only missing matches due to family commitments. Indeed, while Ferguson may well trust his staff, as the temporarily-in-charge Mike Phelan claimed last night, he has never previously felt the need to scout a European opposition at the expense of his own side.
After all United has faced many more difficult ties in Europe before – on paper at least – than a trip to the Mestalla, with the club’s two stars David Villa and David Silva now departed for new pastures. The Murciélagos also sold Nikola Žigić, Carlos Marchena and Alexis Ruano during the summer, with €600 million of reported debts to clear.
Despite the sales Valencia remains one of the more attractive La Liga sides, frequently deploying two strikers and exploiting the flanks through Joaquín Sánchez and Juan Mata. That much an amateur scout can report.
Moreover, despite the draw with Rangers last week, Ferguson’s side has been in a more precarious group stage predicament in the past, including the abysmal 2005/6 season in which the Scot’s side was knocked out at the group stage. The disastrous loss to Lille that effectively sealed United’s fate was preceded by a similarly meaningless Carling Cup tie against Barnet, which Ferguson attended.
True, should United lose to Valencia then Ferguson’s side will probably need to win in Glasgow or Bursa, but the implication that United has normally under-prepared for European ties is a serious one. Quite what the club’s chief European scout Martin Ferguson makes of the charge is another matter. Being keen on value, Ferguson could even have hit Sky+ and recorded the match, which was broadcast live on Sky Sports 3 last night.
The alternative viewpoint, one that Phelan attempted to head off at the pass, is that Ferguson not only disrespected the Carling Cup but also the young players for whom the Scot has professed such hope.
That leaves the issue of De Gea, the flip side of a very strange coin. The talented 6’3″ teenager, who was named by Spanish national team manager Vicente del Bosque in a provisional 30-man World Cup squad, has played just 35 games for Atlético. But such is the player’s progress and undoubted presence that it seems only a matter of time before one of Europe’s leading club’s makes the capital side a serious offer.
Certainly Steele’s presence means De Gea is of interest, with United unlikely to want Valencia’s 39-year-old ‘keeper César Sánchez. De Gea will have impressed the United party too, with the teenager pulling off a string of saves in a man-of-the-match performance.
Ferguson is due to return to Manchester today, although he will not face the press as normal Friday morning when clarification of the trip’s motivation would have surely been sought. The Scot today threw his toys out of the pram and cancelled the regular press conference, apparently due to his displeasure at the media’s coverage of his comments about Fernando Torres last weekend.
It only adds to the aura of suspicion that surrounds the trip.