Ferguson pins Rio slump on media

LONDON: Sir Alex Ferguson has blamed the media for Rio Ferdinand's loss of form this season. Criticism of the central defender intensified following the ease with which Fernando Torres swept past him for Liverpool's opener in their 2-0 win last Sunday but yesterday Ferguson said: "I don't know where it is coming from. I just have to put it down to the modern culture of humiliating people. That is your opinion and it may well be wrong."

Ferguson's outburst came despite the manager having suggested a fortnight ago that Ferdinand, who is approaching his 31st birthday, needed to "step up" or run the risk of losing his place for bothManchester United and England. "He has to get good form – that's an important issue for the coach to pick the right team," Ferguson said at the time.

Yesterday, though, when invited to discuss the centre-half's displays ahead of the home game against Blackburn Rovers, Ferguson bridled. "I'm not going into that," he said, "because I read the stuff in the newspapers and I hear he is going to be dropped and all this but I don't think any of you have access to my mind. Any of you. You can try and pick my teams but you will never pick my teams, you can try as much as you like."

Ferdinand, who has Jonny Evans breathing down his neck, has suggested he needs a run of 10 full matches to regain fitness after being troubled with a thigh injury, groin problems and persistent back trouble so his cause was not helped by the announcement that he is doubtful for today's match with a calf problem.

His fellow central defender Nemanja Vidic is also struggling with a calf problem though Ferguson hoped that any defensive weaknesses would be offset by the recent return of the goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar to his starting XI, after he finally recovered from the hand injury he suffered in pre-season.

"Neither of them have trained since the [Liverpool] game," Ferguson said of his central pairing. "Vidic has a little problem with his calf. We have sent him to a specialist and hopefully we can correct that but he has been struggling a little bit with it. I think the key to us is having Van der Sar back, he's a fantastic goalkeeper. It's incredible to think that at 39 he's retained his fitness and motivation to play all the time. That will make a difference. That will settle the defence."

Ferdinand's agent, Pini Zahavi, meanwhile, has suggested that the defender had made "a big mistake" in playing when not fully fit.

"He has had a lot of bad luck with injuries this season," said Zahavi. "He has had about four injuries, and because of his desire to do well for Manchester United he will turn out even if he is not 100%, and for him that has been a big mistake, because it has affected his form. But don't worry, Rio is the same player, with the same abilities, and he will show it the minute he is back fully fit again."

With nine Premier League matches taking place today and just one tomorrow, the league table tonight will give a good indication of the early pacesetters but Ferguson remains unconvinced that anyone but the usual big four of United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal will still be in line for the title when the business end of the season approaches.

"I think you're seeing early-season syndrome," he responded when asked if this year's title race will be even tougher than usual. "Teams lose points early season but when you get to the second half of the season it will be the same ones battling it out.

"Chelsea, Arsenal and us have all lost two games and Liverpool have lost four. Teams are all revved up at this time of the season, there's challenges everywhere, everyone is optimistic and we've had three international breaks. It doesn't settle down until we get into the Christmas period."