Football: Ferguson rejects the evidence

European Cup: Manchester United's manager believes his side will defy history and go on to triumph in Turin
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The Independent Online
HIS PLAYERS were still in the dressing-room, drained after their Herculean escape from the mastery of Juventus, when Alex Ferguson began fortifying them for the daunting trip to Turin in 12 days' time.

The core of this Manchester United side owe their careers to Ferguson, having been at Old Trafford from the cradle, or plucked from relative obscurity, and his moods and words carry great weight with them.

Thus, as another Old Trafford full house was still drifting off into the Salford night, Ferguson was already professing a supernatural belief in his team's ability to progress to the European Champions' Cup final.

"I know Juventus will feel they are favourites for the second leg but something tells me we're going to win," he said, delivering the words with such serene confidence that one wondered if cinema had taken the right actor from Old Trafford when it lured Eric Cantona to the silver screen.

Ferguson reinforced this belief with opinion presented as fact. He did not think Juventus could not play as well again, nor United as badly.

It sounds plausible enough but the truth is Juventus outplayed United because they were superior in technique and, surprisingly, self-belief. This is what Antonio Conte, who scored for the third successive Champions' Cup tie, meant when he said: "Strange things happen to players in these matches. Some grow, some disappear."

United fought their way back into the match on spirit but Ferguson knows it will be difficult, if not impossible, for United to repeat on an away ground the waves of attacking play which finally broke Juventus on Wednesday night.

In another attempt to lay the ground for the return leg he added: "Juventus can go through with a goalless draw but they can't play for nil-nil, it's not in their nature. They will go out with the intention of winning."

It is indicative of the change in Italian football that such a statement can be made with a straight face but, that said, one can hardly envisage Juventus tearing forward and leaving gaps at the back. Until the final minutes they defended impeccably in Manchester and always did so in numbers.

The wide men gave good protection to their full-backs while Didier Deschamps and Edgar Davids blocked the supply line down the centre.

Davids was not far behind Zinedine Zidane as one of the outstanding talents of the World Cup, only his tendency to overstep the mark - which caused Graham Poll to dismiss him during the Netherlands' friendly against Argentina last week - spoiled his impact. At Old Trafford he curbed that aspect of his game without losing the sense of menace which suggests he was always the first to be picked in schoolyard matches.

Zidane, until he tired, was sublime. His ability to find space with a shimmy of his body and pick out a pass with that radar brain is unmatched in the modern game. Like so many World Cup players he is now finding form when it matters.

However, United cannot be written off. As Peter Schmeichel, who is set to equal Bill Foulkes' club record of 35 European Cup ties in Turin, said afterwards: "We have always kept going until the end and you're never surprised if we score."

Davids agreed: "You never feel you have done enough against English teams. They are very hard to beat and they never give up."

But neither do Juventus, who only reached this stage with a late goal of their own in Piraeus. Nor Bayern Munich, who produced another stirring comeback in Kiev. These players may be millionaires but they are not shirkers. Wasted talents like Matt Le Tissier should watch matches like Wednesdays and weep. As Zidane, though far from match fit, showed, there is no shame in hard work.

United now turn their attention to another titanic match, Sunday's FA Cup tie against Arsenal at Villa Park. They then have a six-day break before facing Sheffield Wednesday at home. For once their opponents have a more demanding build-up, the weekend before they face Manchester United, Juventus travel to Rome to play Lazio, the Serie A leaders.

History favours the Italians. While Manchester United have never won a competitive match in Italy, Juventus have lost just three times in 53 home matches and four decades of competing in the European Champions' Cup. The last defeat that counted was a 1-0 semi-final, second-leg reverse to Benfica in 1968. Benfica then lost to Manchester United in the final.

In 46 subsequent home matches Juventus have lost once, to Borussia Dortmund in a group match in 1995. It was irrelevant to Juventus, they had already qualified for the later stages and went on to win the competition. It was the start of three successive final appearances for La Vecchi Signora - a fourth now beckons.