Through the combination of their own rare, young talent, expanding experience and the lack of any other truly exceptional continental side this season, United have probably their best opportunity to become European champions since they last won in 1968. However, a threatening triumvirate of useful if not outstanding German sides, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen are lurking, along with the fleet-footed Dynamo Kiev and the historically intimidating though at present uncertain Real Madrid. Only Kiev have been as consistently impressive as United so far, but Bayern in particular are playing for higher stakes than this season's glory.
Their 2-0 away win over Besiktas, of Istanbul, last Wednesday assured them of a quarter-final place, which was a huge relief to a hugely ambitious club. They would have progressed even more positively had they not been surprisingly upset earlier in the competition when Paris St Germain scored two goals in three minutes against them to inflict the only defeat (3- 1) the German champions have suffered so far. Bayern had beaten PSG 5- 1 in Munich a fortnight before.
Bayern's Italian coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, has at least achieved his first aim - "stop the talking and start the playing" - but that in part goes down to selling Jurgen Klinsmann, who was forever in arguments with Lothar Matthaus. Now Bayern are more peacefully getting on with rising to the demands of the most illustrious "back-room" staff in football: Franz Beckenbauer (president), Karl-Heinz Rummenigge (vice-president) and Uli Hoeness (general manager).
Bayern are particularly keen to impress in Europe this season since Rummenigge is in the forefront of the campaign to bring about a fully fledged European Super League and Beckenbauer needs to raise the vast amount of money needed to build a new stadium.
The holders of the European Cup, Borussia Dortmund, are clearly going to defend their title with sterner resistance than they have sometimes shown in the Bundesliga this season. After confirming their own quarter- final place with a 4-1 win over Galatasaray, they had conceded only three goals in five games. Their comparatively new Italian coach, Nevio Scala, has been filtering in young players in much the same way as Ferguson has developed the youth at Old Trafford, but the team has become a paradox. Their progress in Europe is completely at odds with their domestic form: earlier in the season they were knocked out of the German Cup by a side of part-timers. Admittedly, for most of the season injuries have seriously depleted the squad. On occasions they have been without Andreas Moller, Matthias Sammer and Stefan Reuter, who form the heart of the team. But there is always the veteran Jurgen Kohler, at 32 still one of the world's strictest markers.
The trio of German sides remaining in the Champions' League is completed by the quietly interesting Bayer Leverkusen, runners-up in the Bundesliga last season. Bayer have the resources to achieve their main objective, the league championship, rather than European success. Buying the Brazilians Emerson and Paulo Roberto to link up with the league's top scorer last season, Ulf Kirsten, emphasised their ambition.
That Monaco have become another of the stealthy outsiders was confirmed by their remarkable comeback against Sporting Lisbon, winning 3-2 after being two down early on. The coach Jean Tigana has done well after selling many of their leading players last summer, not least the top scorer, Sonny Anderson ... ironically to the now humiliated Barcelona.Reuse content