Football: Ferguson considers the risk factor against bolt from the blue boys

A team of unknown Slovakians - apparently rudderless but with the notable scalp of Spartak Moscow to their credit - face England's title holders in a Champions' League fixture that will prove vital to Manchester United's European Cup chances. Guy Hodgso
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The Independent Online
There are worse Champions' League scenarios than to land in a foreign country and find your opponents locked in bickering disarray. Not much is known about FC Kosice, but what can be confidently said about them is the Slovakians have managed to misplace their coach in between the weekend and tonight's match against Manchester United.

The official reason for Jan Kozak's resignation is ill health although local reports suggest any malady has been caused by internal politics. "Someone in the club is against me," Kozak told a Slovakian newspaper. "I have left so the players do not get involved in a power struggle."

Which would be music to the ears of United's manager, Alex Ferguson, if his experience against relative unknowns in Europe did not make him wary. Galatasaray were not household names until they dumped United out of the European Cup while Rotor Volgograd's one excursion away from obscurity came when they conjured a Uefa Cup win on away goals at Old Trafford two years ago.

Kosice come from the same bolt-from-the-blue territory. The first side from Slovakia to reach the Champions' League proper, they were reformed only five years ago and became the first side from Slovakia's second city to take the national title (either Czech or Slovak) in 100 years of trying this summer. Given that they also defeated Spartak Moscow to join United, Juventus and Feyenoord in Group B, it can be safely said that results did not figure in Kozak's departure.

His successor will be his assistant, Jan Bodnar, although that could be temporary. "He is coach until the president of the club comes back from a holiday in the United States," a spokesman said ominously yesterday. "Then it will be sorted out."

Troubled or not, Ferguson has been impressed with a team who supplied six players for the Slovakian national side last week. "Like a lot of Eastern bloc teams they are very stubborn," he said, "with some good technical players and others who are very strong. If you beat Spartak Moscow you've laid your credentials on the plate."

Equally, if you lose five times in the Champions' League, including to Fenerbahce at home, your credentials to win the European Cup are suspect. United managed to do the above but reach the semi-finals last season and although the League phase of the competition is unquestionably harder - with only the group winners certain of going through - Ferguson is confident of doing better. Asked yesterday if his squad was stronger placed to win the competition this time, the United manager replied with an unequivocal "yes".

About his team he is less sure. Ryan Giggs' pulled hamstring, along with injuries to David May, Ronny Johnsen, Jordi Cruyff and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, had stripped his squad to what he described as "the bare bones" although one man's skeleton is another man's figure of corpulence as Ferguson has Andy Cole and Paul Scholes as able deputies. Also in the 19-strong party is Teddy Sheringham, who is recovering from broken ribs diagnosed a little over a week ago as needing three weeks' of rest to heal. "He's in consideration," Ferguson said. "Sometimes you take risks in a situation we're in."

As indeed must United tonight if they are going to finish ahead of a Juventus side who confined them to second place in their group last season. A defeat here would be calamitous to their hopes, while the days when a dirge of a draw was considered a good result away from home in Europe could be coming to a close.