Football: Ferguson defuses the fear factor

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The Independent Online
THERE have been signs of late that the first flush of the Premiership is fading; that fatigue and the niggling injuries that accompany it may be taking a toll. As five go to Europe this week, their hope will be that the new vistas can lift eyes - or more importantly lungs and legs - above the treadmill.

Three seasons ago, Arsenal limped out of the Champions' Cup against Benfica in just such a period. And although no such fate will befall Manchester United should they fail to beat Barcelona at Old Trafford in a potentially momentous match on Wednesday, league having replaced knock-out, they will seek the insurance of home victory despite their frayed edges.

With Eric Cantona serving the third of his four matches suspended, the United manager Alex Ferguson will hope that Ryan Giggs is fit to resume, having enjoyed his best performance of the season in the home match against Gothenburg. 'If our midfield can reach the level they did against Gothenburg, we've got a good chance,' says Ferguson, who is pitting his wits again against Johan Cruyff after emerging as the successful coach from the 1991 European Cup-Winners' final.

Ferguson believes that Barcelona will come to Old Trafford in a more attacking frame of mind having lost in Gothenburg, with Romario and Hristo Stoichkov likely to play more centrally rather than wide. 'What Cruyff knows about us is that we'll work hard and we'll keep our shape,' he says.

Cruyff has to decide which one of his four non-native players in Romario, Stoichkov, Gheorghe Hagi and Ronald Koeman to omit, though a combination of any three seems formidable enough. Ferguson counters, though: 'Names. We've all got a thing about names, like Romario and Stoichkov. Sometimes you get more frightened of the names than what they actually do.' The coach's son, Jordi Cruyff, is likely to be a substitute.

From Jordi to Geordie. The previous night Newcastle are also at home to Spanish opposition in Athletic Bilbao in the Uefa Cup. Though they will be troubled by the Basques' exciting 20-year-old Julen Guerrero, Newcastle should have the wider range of talent even if Robert Lee is unfit.

Aston Villa's match the same night in the Turkish Black Sea port of Trabzon represents poor reward for their win over Internazionale. The away leg is likely to be a torrid trial against a team who looked accomplished enough in overcoming Dinamo Bucharest.

The following night, in the Cup-Winners' Cup, Arsenal return to the country where their run to the trophy last season began - against Odense - when they take on Brondby. Arsenal's now vast experience should prove too much for the Danes, while Chelsea's exuberance should ensure a first-leg lead over FK Austria of Vienna.

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