Football: Champions' League - United facing a test of maturity

Giggs injury and Butt suspension pose twin problems on a night when Ferguson must get it right
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The Independent Online
MUNICH WAS quiet yesterday morning. Having been the only part of the German south-east to vote for the victorious socialists it was suffering the consequences of combining election celebrations with the Oktoberfest.

But, as the players of Bayern Munich or Manchester United will find out tomorrow morning, you do not need to be drunkenly hungover to feel terrible.

If either side loses tonight's Champions' League tie they will still wake with all those feelings of regret and remorse. Defeat in the Olympic Stadium could spell the beginning of the end for either side, Bayern having lost in Copenhagen the night United were being held at home by Barcelona. Those results showed how tight Group D is, but, though Alex Ferguson insisted yesterday that nine points could be enough, it will be difficult to qualify should they only gain one from the first two games.

United will be hamstrung by the loss of Ryan Giggs and Ronny Johnsen. The absence of Giggs, who is suffering from a foot injury sustained against Liverpool, is a blow as European football seems to bring the best from him.

With Nicky Butt also suspended Ferguson may play Jesper Blomqvist on the left though another, more defensive, option would be to recall Henning Berg in defence, move Gary Neville back to full-back and play brother Phil in midfield.

The decision is a difficult one for Ferguson as the latter option may be interpreted by his players as an indication of a lack of confidence in them. It is easy to forget how many players are young or new to Old Trafford's special pressures and such a move could exacerbate the insecurity which sometimes manifests itself in this United side.

It did against Barcelona. One reason the Spanish got back into a game United had won was a reluctance by the Old Trafford side to continue playing their aggressive, high-tempo football. The inclination to drop back and defend a lead is a natural one in footballers but it has the effect of inviting pressure and Barcelona took full advantage.

Ferguson yesterday admitted his players still had some maturing to do at this level. Though they had a lot of European experience for their age they were still being asked fresh questions, questions to which they would only learn the answer through trial and error. There is, he said, an immaturity to their decision-making sometimes and it showed against Barcelona. "We have to impose and express ourselves," he added.

United's task may be eased by the pressure on their opponents. Uli Hoeness, a member of the Bayern side which won three European Cups in the mid-Seventies, and created a millstone for every successive team, regards the present squad as "the most talented in 20 years". Since he is the club's general manager that creates a lot of expectation for Ottmar Hitzfeld, the club's ninth coaching appointment of the decade.

Having led Borussia Dortmund to a surprise Champions' League triumph two years ago - during which they defeated United in the semi-finals - Hitzfeld at least has the pedigree to cope. Judging by their domestic start, six straight wins - he may also have the squad.

There are 16 full internationals in his pack, six of these, including defender Marcus Babbel, a former United transfer target, were called up by the national team on Monday. The uncapped Carsten Jancker was also selected and Stefan Effenberg would have been if available. There is also a French World Cup winner in Bixente Lizarazu; Giovane Elber, who was recalled by Brazil yesterday; and assorted other internationals from Ghana and Bosnia to Turkey and Iran. The latter is represented by Ali Daei, who impressed at the World Cup.

Tony Woodcock, the former Nottingham Forest striker who won a European Cup medal in Munich in 1979, said of Daei: "He's very good on the ground and strong in the air. They think they can get at United's defence through the centre and can pick from Daei, Jancker, who's very strong, and Elber who's a goal machine."

Ferguson was understandably reluctant to talk about the historical resonance of the tie, United's first trip to Munich since the 1958 air crash.

"It's a very emotional part of the club but we're just here for the game," he said. "It's just another big match," added Roy Keane, articulating the view of most of the players. Even so, while the match is on terrestrial television there may be a few celestial viewers tonight.

Probable teams: Bayern Munich: Kahn; Mattheus; Babbel, Linke; Strunz, Jeremies, Effenberg, Salihamidzic, Lizarazu; Elber, Jancker or Daei.

Manchester United: Schmeichel; Irwin, G Neville, Stam, P Neville; Beckham, Scholes, Keane, Blomqvist; Yorke, Solskjaer.

Referee: M Batta (France).