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Ferguson set to solve striking dilemma

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Phil McNulty | 18:03 GMT, Sunday, 10 August 2008

nevilleshield438.jpgWembley Stadium

Sir Alex Ferguson was in relaxed mood - as relaxed as a manager should be with the Premier League and the Champions League in his trophy cabinet and with the cosmetic glory of the Community Shield added to Manchester United's collection.

He took all questions amiably in the bowels of Wembley, even the sort of inquisitive probing on specific transfer targets that can spark, shall we say, a prickly response.

But it was clear that there was one cloud on Ferguson's Old Trafford horizon. Not exactly a thunder cloud, but one he appears to have every intention of blowing away before next Sunday's first game against Newcastle United at Old Trafford.

Ferguson watched his side dominate possession, create a presentable collection of chances, but still need penalties to beat a Portsmouth side who should have been dismissed well before the need for a shoot-out.

Carlos Tevez was inspirational, but with Wayne Rooney recovering from illness, Cristiano Ronaldo sidelined until October after surgery and Louis Saha sidelined until the 12th of Never with whatever it is now, Ferguson's need for a natural goalscorer is clear.

And he candidly admitted he had hopes of having his man in place before the serious stuff starts next Sunday.

It provided an intriguing backdrop to a Wembley game that offered much to encourage Ferguson ahead of the new campaign.

United can afford to miss chances in the Community Shield. They could even have afforded to miss their penalties in the grand scheme of things - but a finisher might make the difference to the fine margins that operate in the Premier League.

Missed chances could prove the difference between a good start and a great start, which is why Ferguson made his priority clear. He does not want to offer the slightest piece of daylight to his closest rivals from day one - it is not in his nature.

United have been linked with Thierry Henry, and while Ferguson pointedly did not dismiss the notion, he is surely a decoy for main target Dimitar Berbatov.

Henry would be a gamble, a once great player now past his best but still with the ego of by-gone days.

Ferguson has never been shy of taking a punt, Eric Cantona was his greatest, but it would be a major shock if the former Arsenal icon was his man.

Can you see him fitting in at Old Trafford? Can you actually picture the great one-time Gunner in a Manchester United shirt? No, nor can I.

But what purpose would it serve Ferguson to deny the interest in Henry? He could be a crucial pawn in his game of chess with Spurs.

There is no shrewder or more battle-hardened transfer operator. If Berbatov is his chosen one, he will happily play the long game to land him and invariably gets his man.

Spurs, however, are experts at playing hard-ball when it comes to selling and they will not blink unless Ferguson delivers the exact package chairman Daniel Levy demands.

The shadow of Berbatov has lurked over Old Trafford all summer, and Ferguson will have watched his side's wastefulness with interest, before hardening his resolve to ensure the problem does not undermine their start to the season.

Ferguson wants his double champions to hit the ground running. He will not want missed chances raising his blood pressure.

The absence of a finisher was only placed into sharper relief by the fact all other parts of Ferguson's team looked to be in excellent working order.

United's defence looked imperious, barely refusing to give Portsmouth's new strike force of Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch an opening.

Rio Ferdinand looked like the England captain-in-waiting, with a display that had Ferguson enthusing that when he was in that mood "he's approaching the best centre-back in the world by far - a magnificent player."

Ferguson was just as effusive about the returning Gary Neville - "a remarkable man" - who played for 66 minutes and looked as if he is finally over the injury problems that have dogged him for around 18 months.

If he is fit, Ferguson faces a happy dilemma (although he labelled it "cruel") after Wes Brown's outstanding performances in the right-back role last season.

Ferguson's resources are plentiful in midfield, so it is only that striking dilemma that will worry him in the countdown to the new campaign.

He admitted it has been pressing since the end of last season, and history tells us Ferguson is not a man to leave serious matters to chance, so expect action in the next seven days.


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