Football: Cuper aiming to nullify the Beckham threat

t CHAMPIONS' LEAGUE Ferguson senses new air of convinction in his world-beaters as they face up to make-or-break European confrontation
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The Independent Online
THE HEAT is on Manchester United's Champions' League hopes tonight, with the beaming smiles of the Valencia players beating down on them like the Spanish sun.

United simply cannot afford to lose at Old Trafford against the counter- attacking Spanish side. If they do their chances of holding on to the trophy will be seriously damaged. For once, United do not have the advantage in the mind games department or the league table and Valencia's Swedish stopper, Joachim Bjorklund, a man of vast experience with Gothenburg and Rangers, feels many factors are in favour of the Spaniards.

Bjorklund has seen off United in the past in this competition, with Gothenburg, and believes the club champions of the world can be eliminated. "It's more them than us who are under pressure, and that could be good for our team," the softly-spoken Swede said. "We play on the counter-attack and in Claudio Lopez we have the quickest player in Spain."

Lopez is undoubtedly the danger man. In Valencia's unbeaten run the Argentinian has scored three times away from home, including in a recent win over Rangers. In Bjorklund's mind, that victory on British soil in front of a hostile crowd is ideal preparation.

"We've been up to Glasgow and it doesn't get much worse or better than that. It's hard to beat the atmosphere either at Rangers or at Celtic. We have a few players out with injuries and suspensions but we have some good substitutes and hopefully they will come through. Our style suits away games in Europe."

Valencia will miss the combative powers of David Albelda and Gerard Lopez, who are both suspended, and have been practising defending against high balls from open play and set pieces to counter the threat of David Beckham's crossing ability.

Beckham may have other things on his mind. He will come face to face with his worst nightmare in the shape of referee Kim Milton Neilsen, the official who dismissed him in the infamous game against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup finals. Milton's dismissal of Beckham for a sly kick at Diego Simeone made the midfield player public enemy No 1 on his return home. Neilsen may find Old Trafford remembers his name tonight.

The United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, is more concerned with the threat of the pacey Spaniards and what defeat would do for his European aspirations. "This is a seriously big match for us," he said. "I'm happy that I've got all my players fit, it's a good time to get everyone available for such an important game. I've watched Valencia quite a few times and they have good quality players. We will have to perform at the very highest level to get the result we want.

"The reasons for my optimism are that we have our concentration back, and when that happens we are a difficult team to beat. We showed that against Palmeiras. We were really back on track - and we will need to be against Valencia."

The Valencia coach, Hector Cuper, paid tribute to United but revealed that he would not change his system to defend and play for a point. He knows his opponents' weaknesses while appreciating their strengths.

"Manchester United are the most balanced team in Europe," Cuper said. "Their aerial play is one of their strengths but they have many other qualities. In all aspects they are the most complete team I have seen at the moment.

"Anything we can get out of this game is good. I would prefer to go home with three points but we start with one and that would be a great result. Any points at Old Trafford are good points."

Manchester United (probable): Van Der Gouw; G Neville, Berg, Stam, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Giggs; Yorke, Cole.

Valencia (probable): Palop; Angloma, Djukic, Pellagrino, Carboni; Farinos, Bjorklund, Milla, Mendieta; Sanchez, Lopez.

n Roy Keane will lead out Manchester United against Valencia believing his Old Trafford future is virtually assured. Keane will have another round of talks with the club's solicitor Maurice Watkins tomorrow, when it is expected that his continued presence at United will be confirmed.

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