FOR a moment or two, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson presented the case for starting Rio Ferdinand on the bench against Liverpool tonight, arguing that the hype over his return might outweigh the importance of the game. But, unable to convince himself, let alone his audience, he laughed and said: Nah, you're right, I'll play him.''
Ferguson liked the idea of galvanising the Theatre Of Dreams by sending on Ferdinand, who has completed his eight-month suspension for failing to take a drugs test, as a substitute. The truth, however, is that United's beleaguered defence cannot afford to wait another second for him to bring some cohesion to their ranks and for Ferguson to delay that would invite the crowd to ask if he were Kevin Keegan in disguise.
Ferguson can buy every top forward in the country, and he proudly spouts statistics showing that his players had more shots on target and created more chances than any other team in European competition last week. But tellingly, for all that, the result in Lyon was still another disappointing draw and he understands that the goals that really matter at the moment are those flying into Tim Howard's net.
He says: Until we get the back four, we are not going to have a true assessment of the abilities of my defenders. Because once you start changing all the time, you do get inconsistency of results. That doesn't mean that players can make mistakes and get away with it and we have made some bad mistakes. But once we get the back four playing, I'm very confident we'll be okay.''
Ferguson argues that Ferdinand's suspension cost them their Premiership title last season. And although there is no guarantee that they would have overcome a brilliant Arsenal side, the record proves that United's hopes disappeared almost the moment Ferdinand walked off to start his suspension early when injured at Wolves on Jan 17.
Seventeen minutes later, a slip by his replacement Wes Brown allowed Kenny Miller to score a shock winner and, 24 hours later, Arsenal won at Aston Villa to replace United at the top where they stayed.
Remarkably for a club of United's resources, who have effortlessly rotated senior players for years without a noticeable dip in overall team performance, they appeared to have become virtually a one-man team in defence. Having won 16 of their opening 21 games, they won only seven of the final 16 and kept a clean sheet on just four occasions, as opposed to nine in 19 games with Ferdinand in the side.
Now, like Eric Cantona who, though never accused of failing to take a drugs test, often acted as though he were on illegal substances, he returns from an eight-month ban at the first opportunity. Coincidentally, Cantona, after serving his suspension for a kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace supporter, also made his comeback against Liverpool, scoring a late penalty in a 2-2 draw.
Ferguson says: You cannot compare the players' temperaments. Eric was a more emotional, moody character who needed more than anything to play. I'm sure Rio is desperate to play tomorrow, as well, but he is a more phlegmatic character, he has handled this whole thing fantastically and has missed maybe five days' training since it started, and that was when he went to London to see his solicitor.
His temperament is so calm that he has not got bitter about it and it would have been easy to do so. He's not showing a bit of badness about what happened to him, which has allowed him to enjoy his training, even if he's missed the joy of playing on Saturday.
What we said at the beginning was to treat it as an injury because we have had players at this club who have missed a whole season through injury, like Roy Keane and Wes Brown.''
United paid dearly for Cantona's ban, losing the 1993-94 title race on the final day of the season before suffering a 1-0 defeat to Everton in the FA Cup Final.
But by the time he returned on Oct 1 1995, United had responded to an opening-day defeat to Aston Villa by winning five successive games and drawing at Sheffield Wednesday.
Right now, the fans, if not the manager, are wondering where the next victory is coming from. Discounting the Champions League preliminary triumphs over Dinamo Bucharest, United have won just one of their seven competitive games, and that against Norwich at Old Trafford.
Paul Scholes says: It's a great boost to have Rio back. He's probably the best defender in the world and it's good to know that when you make a mistake in midfield, you've got someone like him to rely on.''
The only question to be answered is whether Ferdinand's competitive edge has been corroded by months of football abstinence and whether, under enormous pressure, he is able to provide an instant lift to a team that has had its worst start for years.
Neither Ferguson nor England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson seems to have any doubts, the latter promising to pick Ferdinand for next month's World Cup qualifiers against Wales and Azerbaijan.
This, of course, may be only to avoid another dash to the picket line and the braziers by Gary Neville and company, who threatened to strike when Ferdinand was left out of the England side for last October's game in Turkey and might accuse Eriksson of victimisation if he is not restored at once.
If the Ferdinand case has achieved nothing else, it has helped to focus the mind of both testers and the would-be tested, bringing about a change in the drug testing process that no longer allows players simply to wander off.
Ferguson said: I think the procedures have all changed. Last Saturday at Bolton, the guy from drugs control at UK Sport came in while I was talking to the bloody players.
Can you believe that? Hopefully now, everyone is in the same boat and I'm totally in agreement with that.'' The Sunday Telegraph