Football: Ferguson's focus fixed on supremacy

t CHAMPIONS' LEAGUE Manchester United manager retains faith in depleted squad despite lack of summer reinforcements
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The Independent Online
SIR ALEX FERGUSON is sending admiring and jealous glances away from Manchester United towards Barcelona as he starts his next campaign for European success. The United manager is in no doubt who will provide the biggest tug to take the Champions' League silverware away from his grasp, if they have not already weakened their own grip by a lack of spending.

Sir Alex was typically blunt yesterday as he surveyed the opposition he knows well after years of campaigning at this exalted level. Asked who constitutes the biggest danger to United in Europe this season, he said: "Barcelona, definitely."

While United have fumbled in the transfer market, Barcelona have dug into their resources to strengthen their squad to levels that United can only watch and admire.

"I think Barcelona were unlucky last season with the injuries they had," Ferguson said. "[Winston] Bogarde was out for a season and [Miguel Angel] Nadal was missing. Louis van Gaal has bought another three or four players, the two De Boers, Dehu, and has Patrick Kluivert available. He's got a squad together.

"Van Gaal has recognised what we've all recognised - you need a good pool of players. Barcelona have got two teams, and I mean two teams of internationals. I look at them as a threat. I hope we get them in the final. I'm not being presumptuous, I just have to dream."

While Barcelona have two teams, United barely have one at the moment. Their belt-tightening in the summer has left them vulnerable now the squad is beset by injuries.

The supposed biggest club in the world has had a miserable time in the acquisition of players. Four have been signed, including two goalkeepers, one South African squad man and a Frenchman from the fringes of Internazionale's squad. Unless Mark Bosnich makes an unlikely appearance or Quinton Fortune comes on from the bench, none of that quartet will figure tonight at the start of their defence of the European Cup.

Questions about the signings have not been raised yet as United dominate at home, but domestic results disguise an underlying division between the manager and the plc board. The current crop of crocks - a total of eight players with injuries - was unforeseen. However, Ferguson wanted more cover just in case. His recent frantic moves for a centre-half have pointed up the growing concerns within Old Trafford.

One player suffering more than most is Gary Neville and Ferguson revealed yesterday that he will be absent for two months. "It's a complete tear of his abductor," he said.

So tonight Michael Clegg will make his European debut at full-back in a back four of Phil Neville, Henning Berg and Jaap Stam in the Group D game against Croatia Zagreb.

Denis Irwin has recovered from his Achilles injury and should be on the bench, while Bosnich is fit following his hamstring problem and will challenge Raimond van der Gouw for the goalkeeper's jersey.

Ferguson is toying with a change of formation, although he may stick with his usual 4-4-2 line-up and deploy Jonathan Greening on the right side of midfield with David Beckham in the middle. "I just have to make a decision about the content of my midfield, whether I should stick with four or take the risk of going with three and play with three up front," he said. "We have one or two problems and it's not an easy game for us, but it won't be for them either."

Ferguson has had a summer of distractions, with his book launch, his knighthood, his days at the races, plus a handful of testimonial events. However, the United manager would certainly have been more focused on his squad had the money for reinforcements been available. When United hoisted the trophy in Barcelona last May, the next step was supposed to be "moving on to another level" with a couple of signings.

Yet Ferguson has great faith in the mental strength of his squad even at this tough time. He is helped by the fact that the qualifying group, starting with Croatia Zagreb and followed by Sturm Graz and Marseilles, is hardly a testing one. Yet none of their rivals are still chasing players at this advanced stage of the campaign. Like their new East Stand at Old Trafford, United are under construction.

The Croatia Zagreb coach, Ossie Ardiles, is feeling the pressure after a poor start to the season, although Saturday's 4-0 win over Istra has relieved matters slightly.

"It seems that since I first came here, every week someone asks me is my position sure, but I don't worry that much about it," he said. There may be more pressure on the Argentinian after tonight's match.

Glenn Moore; Champions' League schedule, page 24