Football: United's position of strength

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The Independent Online
Manchester United can establish themselves as the team to beat in Europe. Martin Lipton reports.

Having achieved virtual perfection in Europe, Manchester United can turn their minds to producing something similar in the Premiership over the next four months before the Champions' Cup returns to distract them.

Thursday's effortless dismissal of Kosice should have cleared away any doubts anyone could have had over the quality of the squad Alex Ferguson now has at his command. The only question mark lingers over their ability to take chances; they missed a hatful on Thursday.

United can go to Turin for their final Group B match in 12 days' time with their quarter- final place secure but two targets in sight: they can establish themselves as the team to beat in Europe and end the challenge of the Champions' League's strongest nation. Italian sides - Milan or Juventus - have appeared in all five finals since the European Cup emerged re-born in 1992, each winning once. Now, Parma's hopes hang by the thinnest of threads after being held at home by Sparta Prague, and United can put an end to Juve's campaign by denying them in Turin.

Even if United were to lose, Juve could go out. A draw between Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen in Group F would send them both through and wins in Group D for Real Madrid and Rosenborg - at home to Porto and at Olympiakos, respectively - would do likewise for them, knocking Juve out irrespective of the result in Turin. Along with United, Germany's Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, and the Ukraine's Dynamo Kiev are already sure of their places.

Ferguson admits the turn of events this week - set in motion by Feyenoord's win over Juve - has forced him to reassess the dangers to his team. "It's difficult to say who the main threats to us are now," he said. "There have been some shocks. It looks as if PSV could be out, too, and there could still be some more."

One thing that Ferguson thinks has made all the difference for his side this season is confidence. "Last year we had the comfort of knowing we could finish second in the group and still qualify. But this time we felt we had to be first. We've done that, and I think we've deserved it."