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By ESPN Staff

Ferguson backs Ronaldo over Southgate's claims

Sir Alex Ferguson backed Cristiano Ronaldo in his condemnation of Gareth Southgate's cheat allegations and insisted the Manchester United winger did not dive to win a penalty at Middlesbrough on Saturday.

On the eve of United's make-or-break Champions League tussle with Benfica, Ronaldo got the chance to answer the criticism heaped on him in the aftermath of his controversial collapse at the Riverside which earned the Red Devils a crucial spot-kick, even though Boro keeper Mark Schwarzer never touched Ronaldo as he closed in to make a save.

Like his manager, Ronaldo feels the on-going discussion over his conduct is fuelled by his part in England's World Cup downfall last summer.

However, the 21-year-old clearly resents Southgate's involvement in the row, when the Boro boss branded him a cheat.

'He (Southgate) stopped playing football last year. He needs to understand football much better,' he said.

'I was trying to get past the goalkeeper. I lost my balance and the referee gave a penalty.

'I realise people criticise me for anything I do. They love to do that ever since the World Cup. But it doesn't bother me. When I go on the pitch I do what I love, which is play football and do my best for the team. That is my aim.'

Ferguson branded Southgate's comments 'naive', adding 'he is a young manager, we need to give him time to settle in.'

But the Scot soon launched into an unprompted defence of Ronaldo, the player he persuaded to remain at Old Trafford this summer following the criticism which came his way over Wayne Rooney's sending-off in the World Cup quarter-final in Gelsenkirchen.

'It is revenge for the English press,' he said.

'They have been waiting months to do this since the World Cup. What is more serious in our game, preventing the best players playing or going on for three days about a dive that wasn't a dive?'

Ferguson's initial post-match reaction was that Ronaldo had not dived, a stance he is sticking by having viewed the incident again numerous times on video.

The United boss' defence centred both around the speed at which Ronaldo runs, plus previous instances of players being punished for intent, one of which involved the winger himself.

'No player is going to give up the opportunity to shoot into an empty goal,' Ferguson added.

'I have looked at it a million times and Cristiano lost his balance completely.

'As I have said time and time again, we do not condone diving and Cristiano knows that.

'But it is difficult for players who run as quickly as he does. For instance, if you were driving at 70mph in a car and another car comes out in front of you, do brake or carry on?

'Don't forget, last year at Manchester City he got sent off for intent even though there had just been two disgraceful tackles on him, while Steven Gerrard got a penalty at Sheffield United at the start of the season, again for intent.

'The interpretation is down to the referee but, to me, it was a clear penalty.'

The lack of free-kicks given in Ronaldo's favour has been a recurring theme of Ferguson's.

He is still troubled at the thought officials are overlooking fouls on the winger purely because of the reputation Ronaldo gained for going to ground too easily early in his United career.

And it must also be a worry German referee Herbert Fandel, who will take charge of tomorrow's Old Trafford encounter, has controlled three previous United games - against Deportivo La Coruna, FC Porto and AC Milan - all of which have ended in defeat.

'It is possible referees are still judging Cristiano on the way he played in his first season,' said Ferguson.

'The first thing that happened to him at Middlesbrough on Saturday was that he was hacked from behind. The referee did not book the player, which only encourages players to keep kicking him and kicking him.

'All I know is that Cristiano is the most fouled player in the Premiership and the stats are there to back it up.'