Football: Flight of Fergy's freedom fighters

An old managerial adversary applauds United's crusading spirit as another European citadel looms; Nick Townsend says foreign fields are no longer forbidden territory
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JUST A FEW hours after Manchester United had razed another European citadel to the ground, Kevin Keegan admitted to being just a trifle concerned about Alex Ferguson's enterprising deployment of his team at the San Siro. "Alex was very cavalier," England's temporary, part-time coach declared during the course of discussing his first England squad, "because even a part of me started to think, `Eh, this game's getting a bit open here'."

It tells you everything about Alex Ferguson's approach to European conflict when that arch-adventurer Keegan, a character who makes Richard Branson look like a nine-to-five clock-watcher, begins to concern himself with such considerations. But there will be no tampering with policy now. United will survive or perish next month against Juventus - their preference from the three survivors - with a policy of sustained assault rather than protectionism, even in Turin. Indeed, there is about as much chance that he will abandon that strategy as England have of persuading him to become their head coach.

Keegan fully endorses such a positive stratagem. It is no secret where his tactical priorities lie. Indeed, the inference was that his Newcastle team of 1996 influenced Ferguson's thinking, although you can never imagine the Scot conceding as much. "I think Manchester United have changed the way they've played in the last year and a half. I'm not saying they're playing like Newcastle. They're not that good," said Keegan, decidedly tongue in cheek. "But it got very open at one stage and, to be fair, Internazionale could have had their second goal when Ze Elias missed that chance near the end. If that had gone in, people might have said, `This is too cavalier, Alex'. That's the borderline between success and failure. But Alex left two up and was proved right in the end because he genuinely believed that Yorke and Cole would get a chance, or Beckham might get a free-kick, and that the best form of defence was attack."

Keegan added: "Manchester United got what they deserved in the end. Over the two legs they were superior; as a team they were more together than Inter Milan. There was a stability that came from Alex being there a long time and the fact that they haven't lost since before Christmas. Now it's a great opportunity for them."

The irony would perhaps be lost on Ferguson that his old adversary Keegan regards him as a kindred spirit. Nevertheless, whether by coincidence or design, there has developed a congruence to their methods.

When the Government introduced its "right to roam" legislation it probably wasn't intended to apply to English football teams on foreign football fields. The disciplined pragmatism that used to accompany every European expedition has been replaced by the freedom issued to Manchester United's men to explore previously forbidden territory, specifically that around their opponents' goalmouth, although, for once, neither Andy Cole nor Dwight Yorke were at their most imperious. Their failure to capitalise on an occasionally stretched and frequently inelegant defence might have cost United dear if Ze Elias had held his nerve towards the end. And this was Inter in more disharmony, by all account, than the European Commission.

If that was the case, you wouldn't have wanted your team to meet them when they were a cohesive force, one in which a Ronaldo was in his pomp. Here the Brazilian, but for one delicious reminder of his beguiling footwork which left Jaap Stam nonplussed although not the admirable Henning Berg, looked a man in need of a lengthy rest from the game. Sadly, it is a possibility that neither his massive salary, reputedly pounds 60,000 a week, or spon- sorship demands, will allow him to indulge.

In the city which is home to Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper", Ronaldo's reappearance, after a week of headaches and sundry afflictions, was regarded almost like a second coming by the Inter supporters. Yet, he appeared neither mentally nor physically equipped to deal with the demands placed upon him. By comparison, Stan Collymore looks a colossus of self-confidence and joie de vivre.

Berg's intervention, when it appeared that Ronaldo might just prove the inspiration that coach Mircea Lucescu had prayed for, was typical of a sublime night's work by the Norwegian. Yet, at the end there was scarcely a hint of emotion. Just a proffered hand - spurned in some cases - for the opposing team, followed by one for the officials, a wave for the travelling United faithful and a round of "high-fives" with Peter Schmeichel, Stam and Beckham, before walking quietly to the dressing-room.

In another existence, you could have imagined him flinging on his overcoat, fixing his bicycle clips and clocking out before arriving home at Norway's equivalent of Acacia Avenue. "Good day at the office, dear?" his wife would have asked. "Oh, mustn't grumble." While TV crews afterwards train their lenses on the likes of Schmeichel and Stam, they tend to ignore a man who, like the namesake that sunk the Titanic, completed his task quietly, often appearing from nowhere.

Berg looked the all-purpose defender at Ewood Park in Blackburn's championship season, but since his pounds 5m move in August 1997, has been frustrated by injury and being part of a squad which contains countless defensive permutations. But recent games have enhanced the perception of a player whose performances suggest an amalgam of qualities, namely composure, co-ordination, neatness and implacability. His clearance off the eyebrows of Ronaldo from Javiet Zanetti's cross will remain long in the memory. "When I was at Blackburn, I was in the team irrespective and, strangely enough, I didn't enjoy my football that much," he said. "At first I became dissatisfied when I was left out of the side at United. When I got back into the squad in January I decided to enjoy every moment rather than concern myself about the next match. It made me more positive about the game."

It was a night for men with such fortitude as Inter threw everything at them, from trickery on the ball to a fair amount of chicanery off it as the crowd hurled their customary ammunition of orange peel. Fortunately, United's twelfth man - if you accept Inter's interpretation of events - the French referee Gilles Veissiere didn't throw the book at Schmeichel at a challenge, where opinions ranged from "mistimed" to "the most blatant penalty decision I've ever seen." In refusing to bow to the oppressive atmosphere, it appeared that the official cast his opinions, at least marginally, in United's favour. When did you last hear Ferguson commending a referee?

Stam, who performed a sterling task marking the potentially lethal Chilean Ivan Zamorano, regarded the 80,000 San Siro as "the most intimidating atmosphere I've played in". Though he added: "It didn't intimidate me. We knew from the start that they would throw things on the pitch. Fortunately, I like oranges. We had to just concentrate on the game. We did our job pretty well. Of course you need a bit of luck sometimes."

Ferguson, horseracing aficionado that he has become, knows that not every "cert" pounds up the Cheltenham hill with the facile grace of Istabraq, just as football teams do not automatically convert a two- goal first- leg advantage into the elimination of a club boasting the support and status of Inter. Before the substitute Paul Scholes intervened it was a head-to-head tussle to the line and made for a compelling spectacle.

Against Juventus it will be equally so; although, as with Inter, the 1996 champions, who lost finals in the last two years, appear to be ripe for defeat. Their respected coach Marcello Lippi resigned last month, and it may require more than the wiles of World Footballer of the Year Zinedine Zidane to blight United's ambition.

Ferguson's team have lost three and won one of their last four meetings, but he maintained: "The important thing is that the players know all about them and, to be honest, we've improved." The only question is: will fortune also continue to favour Ferguson's braves?