Discipline puts United on threshold

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The Independent Online
It was a gamble, but it came off. Had Manchester United lost in Istanbul on Wednesday night, their charter airline's decision to show "Mission Impossible'' as the in-flight movie on the way home would probably have ensured United did not travel with them again.

After three years and eight unsuccessful attempts, some at Old Trafford must have wondered if they were ever going to win away in Europe again. Most of Wednesday's side had never done so with United.

In the event, they beat Fenerbahce with some comfort, overcoming both the alien conditions and the trickery of Nigeria's Jay-Jay Okocha to return with a 2-0 success.

The result was in the balance for 20 minutes, during which Okocha pulled United this way and that. Only the old Turkish failure, poor finishing, kept United afloat - though Peter Schmeichel was never severely tested. Then Ronny Johnsen and Nicky Butt got close to Okocha. Deprived of space to turn and time to settle, he drifted out of a game he had threatened to dominate. Now David Beckham, Eric Cantona and Jordi Cruyff came into play while the defence, mustered around the impressive Gary Pallister, stood firm.

Juventus's Viennese draw was a handy bonus. If United beat Fenerbahce at home in a fortnight - and Juventus defeat Rapid Vienna at home - the English and European champions will both be through. Their subsequent meeting at Old Trafford next month would then probably decide who tops Group C.

That's where the plot may thicken. The losers will face Porto, runaway leaders of Group D. The victors will meet either Milan, faltering but still formidable, IFK Gothenburg or Rosenborg Trondheim.

United will not be thinking of that yet. They may be unbeaten at home in 40 years of European competition but nothing will be taken for granted. On the plus side, Roy Keane and Phil Neville should both be available for that game. Neville Jnr may even be fit to be involved against Newcastle on Sunday, Keane is pencilled in to face Swindon in the Coca-Cola Cup in midweek. Ryan Giggs should also have recovered from his calf injury.

Their returns represent a selection problem - admittedly an enviable one - for Alex Ferguson. By design and circumstance, it appeared on Wednesday that he had found the right combination for Europe, a mobile 4-3-3 formation, similar to that with which Juventus beat United a month ago. Johnsen gave the midfield the solidity it has sometimes lacked in Keane's absence, Cruyff's roving commission gave the attack a fluidity which confused the Turks.

With the full-backs pushing on, and forwards pulling back, there were numbers in midfield when required yet Cantona also had space to flourish. Crucially, United kept their shape, showing admirable discipline. One moment in particular lingers, late in the first half. Beckham had pushed forward on the right, Neville had come up to support him. The move broke down but there was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the quicksilver centre-forward, filling in as an auxiliary right-back.

That tactical discipline - and preparedness to work hard - is the hallmark of United's success in England, and it is where they have had the edge over Newcastle. If they can repeat it on a regular basis in Europe, they will have a chance, as Ferguson said early yesterday morning in Istanbul, of going all the way.