Football: Ferguson's flock could be pick of non-vintage bunch

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WEDNESDAY evening's full hand of drawn games in the European Cup quarter- finals confirmed the suspicion that there is no outstanding team in this year's competition. After three impressive vintages, Milan '94, Ajax '95 and Juventus '96, the '98 champions, will, like Borussia Dortmund last year, be an ordinary Cru blessed with good fortune and the ability to rise to the occasion.

Manchester United - who could develop into a vintage team but are not quite there yet - thus have as good a chance as any of the surviving octet of success, better, indeed, than most following their patient goalless draw in Monaco.

First they have to complete the job in the second leg. Jean Tigana, the Monaco coach, suggested the odds were now 50-50, a revision of his pre-match assessment that United were favourites by 55 to 45 per cent. One might have thought that nearly three years in Europe's casino capital would have given him a better appreciation of odds. According to statistics assembled over the last 17 years of European competition, 70 per cent of teams gaining a goalless draw away from home in the opening leg go on to win the round.

Not that United, Dortmund, Real Madrid and Dynamo Kiev (the latter two, having drawn 1-1, are even more favoured) can start preparing for the April semi-finals yet. Tigana based his assessment on Monaco's away record - they will have David Trezeguet back for the second leg - and they are strong on the counter- attack. It was their fear of United's similar strength which led them to be, to quote L'Equipe, "timid and cautious" on Wednesday. For most of the match the wide men, Willy Sagnol and Philippe Leonard, were more concerned with marking David Beckham and Nicky Butt than getting forward.

With United ever-more defensive away from home in Europe - the result of bitter experience - the match thus became a dull one with neither side willing to commit themselves to attack. At Old Trafford, noted Ali Benarbia, Monaco's disappointed and disappointing midfield schemer, both sides will have to play to win.

Although a Monegasque goal would be worth more than a Mancunian one, the onus will be on United, and they will be hoping against expectation that Ryan Giggs' hamstring recovers in time for him to play. On Wednesday, Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole were comfortably contained by the man-markers, Martin Djetou and Muhamed Konjic, and the sweeper, Franck Dumas. Cole - a rumoured target for Atletico Madrid - has now scored twice in seven games, and United will hope he rediscovers his earlier form by 18 March.

The most impressive ingenuity, craft and cunning of the night was shown by United's 5,000 fans, most of whom got in with or without a ticket. Some just walked in while a substantial number did so with photocopied tickets on which the perforated "watermark" had been forged with a pin.

The poor police organisation did not augur well for the World Cup. There was no outer ring for checking tickets and at one stage, when the sheer number of United supporters arriving shortly before kick-off threatened to overwhelm them, the police drew batons.

Elsewhere, there was more disturbing news, with Tuesday's violence at the Internazionale v Schalke 04 Uefa Cup match, which left a German fan in danger of losing his sight, being followed by problems at Wednesday's Bayer Leverkusen v Real Madrid game.

Meanwhile, United and their fans head for Sheffield and tomorrow's Premiership match against Wednesday. Denis Irwin will not be making the trip and both David Beckham and Peter Schmeichel are doubtful. All are suffering from the effects of Monaco's poor pitch. With neither Arsenal nor Blackburn playing, the champions could go 12 points clear. By the time Monaco arrive at Old Trafford United may be fairly sure that, whatever the result, they will have another shot at the Champions' League next year.

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