Football: Ferguson's men pay price for success

Nick Harris studies the post-European depression that has cost United dear
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Alex Ferguson has made it clear that this season's priority for Manchester United is to become European champions and emulate the triumph of Sir Matt Busby's 60s heroes. But the domestic price to be paid for the rigours of European travel has been high.

It was after the "mentally and physically exhausting" trip to Istanbul in October that ended in a 2-0 win against Fenerbahce that Ferguson suffered his worst defeat in 22 years of management when his side lost 5-0 to Newcastle the following Sunday.

Prior to that, United had lost only two games in domestic competition in 1996, away to Spurs, 4-1 on New Year's Day, and away to Southampton, 3-1, in April. After travelling to Turkey they followed the "blip" against Newcastle with another, bigger "blip" against Southampton the following week, losing 6-3. They they lost their 40-year unbeaten European home record to Fenerbahce, and followed that with a Premiership home defeat by Chelsea.

Whether the domestic bad patch can be attributed wholly to continental distractions or not, it is certain that travelling around Europe does little to enhance performance at home. Last season's involvement in Europe was brief and did nothing to hinder the domestic success of a League and Cup double, but the Champions' League took its toll in 1994-95.

Results immediately after European fixtures that term were not so bad, but United lost three Premiership league games they were not expected to lose (against Leeds, Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday) between 11 September and 8 October 1994, coinciding with the start of their European campaign.

At the end of the season, Blackburn took the title with 89 points to United's 88, a final position that showed clearly the high price for United of nine points not won the previous autumn.

By next spring, and the resumption of the European campaign, it will be performances like yesterday, as well as domestic title run-in games, that will be crucial for United.