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Football: Ferguson guards against complacency factor

The mathematics have got down to the primary school stage. If Manchester United beat Kosice at Old Trafford tonight they will be through to the quarter-finals of the European Cup. If they lose, they will suffer all kinds

of agonies before they meet Juventus in a fortnight's time.

Guy Hodgson reports.

In theory their task is as simple as the sums. Manchester United defeated tonight's opponents 3-0 in Kosice and the Slovakian champions, the first club from their country to make the Champions' League, have not got a point since. They come as potential cannon fodder, but then so did Fenerbahce last season and they ended an unbeaten home record in Europe lasting 40 years.

That night United were lured into a sluggish tempo by the Turks and were caught on the break. Great clubs have come and been conquered at Old Trafford; Fenerbahce were nowhere near as good, yet had stolen a monument of United pride. No match summed up the English champions' European gaucheness better.

Twelve months on and the picture has changed. Alex Ferguson, the United manager, spoke yesterday of English football's growing reputation at both international and club level. "Continental coaches have always feared our spirit and work-rate, now they respect our tactical nous and skill, too." With the only 100 per cent record in the Champions' League, United have every right to that respect.

United's main problem tonight could be a lack of it for their opponents turning into complacency, although Ferguson dismissed the suggestion. "I don't expect that to be a problem at all," he said. "The players have been very focused in all the Champions' League games and I think they will be against Kosice. They know if they win they're through to the next stage and that will be the incentive.

"Fenerbahce was a good lesson for the players because we won't even attempt to play at that tempo. We'll have to work out their tactics and keep possession on occasions but the really important thing is we'll play at our own quick pace. We'll be our usual selves."

There is also the improvement in Kosice to deter assumptions. Their last match, against Juventus, was lost only 3-2 and, as Ferguson suggested, the ability to score twice in Turin should not be disparaged by anybody. In Kosice, they caused United problems for the opening half hour while Jozef Kozlej suggested he will trouble good defenders.

Denis Irwin, who altered the tone of that match with the only goal, is still suffering from the knee ligament problem inflicted on him by Feyenoord's Paul Bosvelt, although yesterday's progress report suggested he will be fit by Christmas. He and Roy Keane are United's only casualties, but Ferguson was in character in refusing to reveal his team.

"What do you think it is, Christmas?" he asked before letting out two snippets. Ronny Johnsen will definitely play - probably be at centre- back - while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will start as substitute and, if all goes to plan, will play the second half.

"We will have to be aware of the counter-attack," Ferguson said. "Against Fenerbahce we hammered at them all night and then lost our discipline with the goal. If we show the same discipline we showed against Feyenoord, particularly in the second half, we should be all right."