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Football: Ferguson switches to football channel

EVEN A Champions' League game against the Spanish football giants Barcelona could not hide the big issue at Old Trafford yesterday. To Alex Ferguson's obvious annoyance, the theme of the questions kept coming back to BSkyB's proposed pounds 623m takeover of Manchester United.

"Who are you?" he asked one television interrogater who pressed him on the matter. To another he retorted: "I'm not going to answer any questions about that. I think you're becoming a nuisance and I'm showing great patience with you."

It was a press conference with an agenda beyond the normal questions about tactics and injuries and one that focused on Ferguson's future with the club. Was it fiction that Juventus had talked to him about his moving to Turin? "You call it fiction if you like," he replied. It's not true, then? "I didn't say that."

Speculation is swirling round Old Trafford at the moment and both Ferguson and his players must be delighted that Barcelona and the Champions' League are glamorous enough a combination to concentrate minds on football, for one evening at least. Tonight, the immediate future of Manchester United will be there for all to see on the pitch.

In a Group D that also includes Bayern Munich and Brondby, a win tonight is more than desirable, it is probably essential if Ferguson is to have a chance of pitting his coaching wits in the knock-out phase. "It's a key game. I'm aware of that," the United manager said. "A defeat would put Barcelona on the back foot, which is important because they are the biggest danger to our progress."

Barcelona have figured strongly in United's recent history and not just because they were the opponents they defeated in 1991 to win their only European trophy under Ferguson, the Cup-Winners' Cup. Three years later Barcelona pulverised the team he describes as "the best I've had in terms of experience and mental toughness" 4-0 in the Champions' League.

Just as BSkyB kept rearing its head yesterday, so that match kept appearing like a ghastly memory. "It was chilling, a chastening experience," Ferguson said. "It was a very frustrating night.

"I gambled big time by leaving Peter Schmeichel out. We needed to beat Barcelona and I put 10 outfield players who I thought would be a good examination for them. In hindsight the presence of Schmeichel was a bigger loss that night than the physical performance of Gary Walsh, who did nothing wrong in the game and was not at fault for any of the goals. Sometimes presence and experience can mean a lot."

Ferguson has spent pounds 27m during the summer to buy that knowhow and two of his three purchases, Jaap Stam and Dwight Yorke, are certain to play tonight. United's only casualty is Ronny Johnsen, who hurt his right ankle against Coventry on Saturday. He will be replaced by Henning Berg.

United's recent form, six goals in two games, suggests that tonight's match has come at the right time, but Barcelona are not as fortuitous. Patrick Kluivert, who would have been playing for the home team if Ferguson's persuasive powers had been harder to resist in July, is ineligible while Miguel Angel Nadal, another Old Trafford target in the past, did not make the trip.

The Spanish champions got their first win of the season on Saturday, a 1-0 success over Extremadura, but have several injuries and may be forced to include the 19-year-old Nigerian Samuel Okunowo in their back four.

Their coach, Louis van Gaal, believes United have an advantage in beginning and ending the league programme at home, wheareas Ferguson has pinpointed the middle phase as the crucial one. "Barcelona and Bayern Munich have to play each other in the third and fourth games," he said, "and hopefully they will cut each other's throats."

How do the current Barcelona squad compare with the team of four years ago? "I'm glad Romario isn't playing," Ferguson replied, recalling the damage the Brazilian did to his back four in the Nou Camp. "They have nobody who can kill you like he could. When you are sitting there for 90 minutes, knowing he's going to strike some time, it's nerve wracking. They don't have anyone like that.

"If we can reach the levels we showed against Juventus last year we have a chance. Our form has come good for us. The performances recently have given us momentum and Dwight Yorke has given us something different. Something we have been searching for the last two years."