Football: Ferguson's case for the defence

European Cup: United manager stresses the importance of not conceding an away goal against Internazionale
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THE TIMING of Diego Simeone's admission yesterday that he had feigned injury to get David Beckham sent off during last summer's World Cup finals was not, it can be safely assumed, coincidental.

Simeone's Internazionale team face Beckham's Manchester United at Old Trafford tonight in the first leg of their European Cup quarter-final and the Italian side have identified the England midfield player as a key to the outcome. Even the least cynical of observers would question the motives for Simeone's admission, which was published in the Italian press yesterday.

Tonight's match sees the two players meet again on the field for the first time since England's World Cup second round match last summer against Argentina in St Etienne, when Beckham flicked out a foot at Simeone, who collapsed to the ground. Beckham was dismissed, England went on to lose the game on penalties and the United player has since been pilloried by opposing supporters.

That is an enormous amount of derision and Beckham, who has been reluctant to discuss his dismissal, would not be human if St Etienne had not crossed his mind even before Simeone's comments. Now it looks certain to be at the forefront.

Alex Ferguson, who has his own opinion as to why Simeone should suddenly confess now, was anxious yesterday to play down the matter. "We'll do our talking on the pitch," the United manager said. "We'll just play the game and not get involved in this. The referee is there to sort out Simeone on the field."

Nevertheless Ferguson could have done without this distraction before his team's most important game of the season to date. He has refused to get involved in the "will he, won't he?" debate that has surrounded whether Ronaldo will play tonight and had hoped nothing else would divert attention from the task ahead.

That, he stressed yesterday, was not to concede an away goal - doing so proved terminal against Monaco at the same stage of the European Cup last season - and not to be taken in by reports emanating from Italy of Inter's weaknesses, with or without Ronaldo.

Inter are currently sixth in their domestic league, 13 points behind the leaders, Lazio. Despite a forward line that includes Roberto Baggio and Youri Djorkaeff they have not scored in their last three matches. Against that they conceded only five goals in Group C of the Champions' League qualifying phase and finished above the reigning champions, Real Madrid.

Ferguson was focusing on that yesterday, comparing the Italians to the ruthlessly efficient defences of the Sixties and Seventies. "Inter are a throwback to the catenaccio system," he said. "They don't give anything away and they man-mark tightly.

"The Milan team of the late Eighties with Rijkaard, Van Basten, Baresi and Maldini brought a freshness to Italian football and Juventus carried it on with with fantastic aggressive play. Inter are different. They try to catch you at a weak moment."

As for their domestic form, he believes it to be irrelevent. "We can disregard that," Ferguson said. "It's a quarter-final tie and you'd expect them to be motivated for that. It's their only chance of an honour. Some clubs can plan to go for one trophy and forget everything else."

Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole's contest with the parsimonious Inter back three will probably decide tonight's first leg, although a more down to earth factor might be just as influential. The pitch, which has been relaid once and was patched up last month, resembled Old Trafford cricket ground yesterday with covers to protect the more vulnerable areas from the constant teeming rain. It was a futile effort.

With more rain forecast for Manchester today it is likely to be more a mud heap than a bowling green and certainly will not be a surface on which anyone would gamble suspect fitness. Ronaldo, for example.

Inter did not bring the Brazilian on the plane with them yesterday but Ferguson was not buying that as final confirmation of his non-availablity. He recalled that Jurgen Kohler did not travel with Borussia Dortmund two seasons ago and still played at Old Trafford, courtesy of a private jet.

"I'm not convinced," Ferguson said. "When Italians tell me it's pasta I check under the sauce to see if it is. They are masters of the smokescreen. They come out with `the English are so strong, we're terrible in the air, we can't do this we can't do that'. Then they beat you 3-0.

"I'll wait to see their team. I ask this question: Why did Ronaldo play in a practice match last Friday?"

Cagy, suspicious, but the United manager is purring that his side are as well prepared as they could be. The acquisition of Yorke and Jaap Stam has strengthened a team which was good enough to reach Europe's last eight last season and he is reinforced by the fitness of Ryan Giggs and Roy Keane ,who were both missing against Monaco.

"We have everyone fit and in the last two or three years we have not had that privilege," he said. "The team is playing well enough, the spirit's good so the recipe is there all right. I don't think we could be more pleased."

A 3-0 win tonight would challenge that assertion.

Lessons of history, page 24


Record of matches between Man Utd and Internazionale*

31 July, 1996

Inter 3 (Carbone, Branca 2) Man Utd 0

13 August, 1996

Man Utd 0 Inter 1 (Zamorano)

27 July, 1997

Inter 1 (G Neville og) Man Utd 1 (Butt)

30 July, 1997

Man Utd 1 (Clegg) Inter 1 (Ganz)

(*all friendlies)

Record against other Italian clubs

1997-98 - Champions' League

Juventus (h), won 3-2 (Sheringham, Scholes, Giggs).

Juventus (a), lost 1-0.

1996-97 - Champions' League

Juventus (a), lost 1-0

Juventus (h), lost 0-1

1983-84 - Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final

Juventus (h), 1st leg - drew 1-1 (Davies).

Juventus (a), 2nd leg - lost 1-2 (Whiteside). Lost 2-3 on agg.

1976-77 - Uefa Cup Second round

Juventus (h), 1st leg - won 1-0 (Hill).

Juventus (a), 2nd leg - lost 3-0. Lost 1-3 on agg.

1968-69 - European Cup semi-final

Milan (a), 1st leg - lost 0-2

Milan (h), 2nd leg - won 1-0 (Charlton). Lost 1-2 on agg.

1957-58 - European Cup semi-final

Milan (h), 1st leg - won 2-1 (Viollet, E Taylor (pen).

Milan (a), 2nd leg - lost 0-4. Lost 2-5 on agg.

Tonight's probable teams

Kick-off 7.45 (itv)