Football: Beware the side of March

Ian Ridley talks to Alex Ferguson as his United team time it right for Europe
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The Independent Online
Alex Ferguson did not even bother to respond to the enquiry; he just turned his nose up. We took it as a no, the line in a magazine that Manchester United should be afraid of Porto, very afraid, did not concern him.

What a difference three months have made. United, then off the pace in the Premiership, had scrambled their way into the quarter-finals of the European Cup with a last-chance Champions' League victory in Vienna, while Porto were winning their group in unbeaten, impressive style.

Now United top their domestic table, as Porto have all season but with their lead trimmed, having "farted about", as Ferguson put it, against Salgueiros and lost their unbeaten record. When March comes, United seem to take it as an instruction.

Ferguson and English football have grounds for optimism in Europe this week with Old Trafford staging the first leg of their quarter-final, Newcastle entertaining Monaco and Liverpool visiting Bergen. The United manager believes that Porto may not prove quite the force they are cracked up to be and that his own young side are maturing rapidly.

"Porto are not as good a side as Juventus," he insisted, recalling the two 1-0 defeats by the European champions at the group stage which nevertheless encouraged him. "Not as powerful. They will be good quality and their system is tried and trusted but we are better prepared, the way we have been operating in the last few weeks, better than for Juventus, I would say.

"I just go back to the Juventus performance at home. I will be happy if we get to that level, create that many chances, though there may be only two or three a game, some cat and mouse. One-nil and I will be content." From the away performance, he hoped the lesson that "when you have the ball in their penalty box, they are at their most dangerous" had been absorbed.

The Portuguese are likely to adopt a 4-3-3 formation, Ferguson believes, even though their win in Milan earlier in the season was achieved with a sweeper. The spearhead will be the Brazilian striker Jardel. "From what I've seen, his best asset is in the air," he said. "If that's so, then Gary Pallister is playing against someone he is playing against every week."

Complacency is the last thing that Ferguson, thorough and determined, can be accused of. He cites the threat, too, of another Brazilian in Artur, and acknowledges that Porto's pedigree is patent, their defensive record excellent. For all that, he believes that their win in Milan was due to tactical errors on the home side's part when leading and that they were fortunate to avoid defeat in the return.

Not one for the present trend of believing that foreign coaches and players must be superior, Ferguson's confidence stems mainly from the development of his own team. "What they have improved is their concentration levels, especially away from home," he said. It is now, he added, a more rounded team less reliant on the formerly overwhelming influence of Eric Cantona which, if suppressed at European level, has in past seasons seen United lacking depth of invention.

"What you are seeing is a transition," Ferguson pointed out. "Players have developed. Two years ago we desperately needed Cantona all the time, just like Bryan Robson of seven or eight years ago. People said when he was out of the team Manchester United couldn't win anything. When I first came to the club there was a certain element of that belief, or lack of belief. But we developed a side that could stand on its own.

"Cantona came along to win us the championship; then you have the situation of Ryan Giggs maturing, David Beckham maturing, Roy Keane maturing and they make their own impact on matches."

Not that Cantona is ready to cede centre stage to others. "He still feels he is important and he is," Ferguson said. "He will now look upon the rest of the season as his best period because it has always been that way, because the prizes are there to be won.

"He has played every game this season up until the two-match suspension. I don't know of any other striker in Europe of his age who has done that. He has recharged his batteries, he's training well and ready now for the big games coming up.

"At this time of year, he focuses. His concentration levels go up. Last year he was our most important player when he won all those games for us and that can happen again." Does Cantona now feel free of responsibility for educating the younger players; is it job done? "You'll have to ask him that." Oh, that the opportunity with the reclusive Cantona were available, you say, and Ferguson smiles.

It is possible, Ferguson said, that he could play Cantona behind Andy Cole and Ole- Gunnar Solskjaer on Wednesday, in a formation resembling the one that recovered to take a point at Chelsea last week, but it seems more likely that Cole will return to the bench, despite the impression he made previously against Arsenal.

"I've never really played with two up front," Ferguson said. "I've always felt it is better with one player freer, one who can see the space ahead of him. You cause a team more problems if one can drop into space and defenders don't know whether to go or stay. Milan do it with George Weah and Christophe Dugarry.

"Cantona does well on that. He comes into the box late and the number of times he gets on the back post is incredible. We have to play him in an area where Porto find it difficult to get to him. Sometimes he goes too deep and he has no effect there. We keep urging him to go up in behind people or to drop in and he's very difficult to play against then."

Ferguson, an apt inheritor of Sir Matt Busby's seat as respecter of tradition but fiercely singular, is keenly aware of the significance of the first quarter-final involving an English club since Liverpool in the year of the Heysel disaster in 1985.

"I had it twice at Aberdeen but I've not experienced it here and with the history of United winning in 1968 and not getting close for many, many years, the game takes on a big importance. That's not a bad thing. We can handle that. A lot of these players are young but I think they are capable of getting through. If we do, I think it will be the hardest one, in terms of getting to the final."

It is that time of year and, as he has said of Cantona, the glint is now in Ferguson's eyes. We will see on Wednesday if potentially superior Portuguese technique can win the day and whether Ferguson's galvanising confidence is mere bravado. Over the decade, the absence of fear and the presence of a strong self-belief have been known to see United through.