Football: Ferguson's assured things

Ian Ridley finds United are in expansive mode as they head for Juventus
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The Independent Online
Who would have thought at the outset of the Champions' League that Manchester United would be going to Turin to play Juventus this week assured of a quarter-final place and with an opportunity to eliminate the winners of 1996 and runners-up of last season?

Certainly not Alex Ferguson. Until the last round of matches The United manager had been worrying about the late goal at Old Trafford which brought Juventus back to 3-2, in case goal difference proved decisive. Now it is possible to talk of United running out in the Stadio Dei Alpi and giving an unpressured, expansive performance in the image of illustrious predecessors.

United, Ferguson insists, will not be entertaining thoughts of defeat even though it would notdamage them. They will want, he says, to illustrate their development from the team who looked so naive by comparison in a corresponding fixture 16 months ago.

"For the big clubs, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Milan and hopefully ourselves, it is a prerequisite to try to win a game of football, isn't it?" Ferguson said. "I don't think you can afford to lose any game. I don't think losing is a healthy habit.

"I think we put on a show in the Feyenoord away game but this is a big occasion and a better team we are playing. It is a terrific stadium and bearing in mind how disappointed we were last year, it is an opportunity to stamp some authority and show that we have improved. That will be interesting. I want them to enjoy it and express themselves better than they did a year ago."

A record - unmatched by any other team in the competition - of five wins from five matches tells its own story. "The whole team has worked really hard," Ferguson said. "They have focused on it and I haven't seen any weaknesses in our performances in Europe."

Juventus, by contrast, are in a barely believable position that could see them fail to reach the last eight even if they win. Bayer Leverkusen and Monaco, for example, can play out a draw and both qualify. Struggling with injuries, Juventus will also be without the suspended Alessandro Del Piero. Daniel Fonseca is likely to partner Filippo Inzaghi up front.

Ferguson will take no pleasure, he said, in eliminating Juve. "They are a class club and Marcello Lippi is a great coach," he says. "But it wouldn't bother me meeting them in the final because my players know all about theirs, which would help in our planning." Nor would Ferguson be concerned about meeting Dynamo Kiev, the form horses, in the quarter-finals in March. "They will be coming off a winter break and it could be a good time to catch them," he said.

This, indeed, is a relaxed Ferguson who clearly fears no one and is quietly confident of his own team's potency. Contemplating the possibility of three German teams, in the holders Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen, reaching the last eight, for instance, brings a jovial response. "You have to respect the Germans," he said. "Apart from being competent, they are lucky bastards."