It wouldn't be the first time that an Italian side has been lying prone, awaiting the fatal bullet when they arrive at Old Trafford on Wednesday for the first leg of their quarter-final tie. Just as Juventus were last season in the group phase, when Manchester United travelled to Turin seemingly to dispatch a team, supposedly dwindling in its powers, to Champions' League obscurity. Juve won 1-0, reached the quarter-finals on goal difference, and were beaten finalists by Real Madrid. United, meanwhile, were eliminated by Monaco.
Alex Ferguson is far too perceptive a manager to permit his team to suffer from premature exaltation. That said, if there is to be a year for the Scot finally to feast himself on the Champions' League top table rather than linger dejectedly outside at the beggar's banquet you suspect this is it. Not, it must be stressed, because of the perceived frailities of under-achievers Inter, who were last European champions in 1964 and 1965, and whose three Uefa Cup successes in the last decade will have been regarded as no more than consolation prizes. Purely because his team, in which Ferguson has such manifest belief that he forewent any temptation to strengthen during the winter, are running at their maximum potential.
Last season at this stage, there was no Ryan Giggs or Roy Keane, both injured, circumstances that certainly contributed to the aggregate defeat by Monaco. This time, of course, there is the added ingredient of a Dwight Yorke, and with his arrival, the catalyst for an improved Andy Cole, and defender Jaap Stam.
Yet, there is rarely absence of one quality around the San Siro and Inter's training ground and that is gamesmanship. It has already gathered apace, and if you listened to what United's opponents had to say about them, the Premiership leaders are destined for another futile fortnight in the Champions' League.
Even allowing for errors in translation, Mircea Lucescu, Inter's new coach, has been typical in his scorn. "Italian football, tactically and psych- ologically, is far superior to English," he says. Overall, Inter believe they have greater pace, and United's defence is particularly vulnerable.
Francesco Colonnese, who will be man-marking Yorke, says: "Stam and Johnsen are incredibly slow." Argentinian Diego Simeone, David Beckham's antagonist at St Etienne, opines of their hosts' rearguard: "They are a bit slow on the turn." Which all suggests that they haven't been watching Stam lately.
Ferguson refused to engage in a counter-assault on his opposite number, but his mood is decidedly upbeat on the plausibility of his team making it to the final. "This time I'll be able to pick the side I want to," he said pointedly. "I'm in the best shape I've been in, and hopefully we've got all those silly goals we give away at bad times out of our system. We've learnt from our previous experiences in Europe."
What the Italians cannot disguise is their apprehension at the prospect of Giggs and Beckham flowing at them, those two molten rivers of excellence, so rich in precious mettle. United's defence may indeed be vulnerable, as exemplified by the group phase tally of goals conceded, but with their two prize midfielders - reinforced by captain Keane, in his element on such occasions - likely to provide a significant thoroughfare through the visitors' defence for Yorke and Cole to promenade their goal-scoring prowess, Inter could well be too concerned with extracting their own feet from clay, even with the experienced defender Guiseppe Bergomi to organise them.
Simeone, whose histrionics contributed to Beckham's dismissal and, ultimately, England's demise in the World Cup, has attempted to take the heat out of that renewal of hostilities between the pair with talk of pre-match concilliatory gestures. Beckham would be advised to regard that gesture with a certain circumspection. The England midfielder has responded with maturity to the idiotic reception he continues to receive from opposing supporters at home, but Inter will be fully aware that Beckham has been prone to the occasional lapse in temperament on European expeditions, as he displayed against Bayern Munich, and will undoubtedly attempt to exploit that vulnerability.
Giggs' return from injury could not be more timely. The Welsh international is now in his ninth year at Old Trafford and though the constant recipient of superlatives throughout that time, he is performing at the zenith of his powers.
If there is one player liable to infiltrate a finely spun defensive web it is the 25-year-old, who has added a penchant for scoring to his creative repertoire. Eight goals in a season pock-marked by injury is a testimony to that quality; significantly, four of them have been in the Champions' League. Ferguson says: "He's a big-game player who really enjoys these occasions. He's fit and raring to go."
Inter, for all their catapulting of derision about United's defensive shortcomings, do so inside what appears to be their own dangerously fragile glasshouse. Last Sunday's 1-0 defeat at leaders Lazio was their eighth in the league this season. They were also knocked out of the Italian Cup at home by Parma, although they gained a point in a goalless draw against Juventus at the San Siro last night.
The capture of pounds 19.5m Ronaldo has created more problems than it has resolved. Despite suggestions that, before Christmas, the Brazilian was recovering from knee tendon problems, helped by a holiday to Rio de Janeiro and time spent with his girfriend, Susana Werner, that has evidently not been the case since the festive season, and the best he is likely to achieve is a place on the bench on Wednesday. It is said there has been a rift between him and Inter's medical staff who have been urging him to play, but the club denies that.
Either way, it has created another dilemma for Romanian coach Lucescu, who was brought in by owner Massimo Moratti after the dismissal of Gigi Simoni in November, although he is only keeping the coaching bed warm for Marcello Lippi who will assume control in the summer. Lucescu's problems do not end with Ronaldo's participation; two players, one of them the masterful midfielder Youri Djorkaeff, refused to go on as late substitutes in recent games and, in Ronaldo's absence, the forward partnership between the Frenchman and Roberto Baggio has hardly been an unqualified success.
However, there is another side to Inter. The one that, before the eclipse by Parma, scored 25 goals in five games at the San Siro. United will also be aware that they finished top of their Champions' League group, a quartet which included Real Madrid and Spartak Moscow. Quite which Inter will reveal itself on Wednesday is impossible to predict, but even at their most potent, you fancy United to prevail on home territory. If Ferguson's men fail to summon sufficient red devilry in a year when all the portents point to them as Champions' League finalists, then even he would have to yield that perhaps it is not meant to be.
FOUR DUELS TO CROWN A CLASSIC AT OLD TRAFFORD
STAM V RONALDO
The two were team-mates at PSV Eindhoven when the former England manager, Bobby Robson, was in charge in the early Nineties. When they last met, in the semi-final of France 98, Ronaldo won the day - the Brazil No 9 scored the opening goal after leaving Stam's defensive partner, Frank de Boer, for dead. The United centre-back is on much better form than he was during the summer, though. And the pressures of his world-record pounds 10.5m transfer fee appear to be evaporating by the game. Conversely, Ronaldo's post World Cup has been unspectacular. There are persistent rumours that his knee injury is a career-threatening one, and the effects - psychological and physical - of that "fit" on July 12 1998 still seem to linger. Indeed, the "will he play, won't he play" saga looks set to persist right up until kick-off. That said, any 22-year-old who can boast 55 caps and two Fifa World Player of the Year awards, should never be discounted.
KEANE V BAGGIO
United's more measured three-pronged assault in 1999, can be largely attributed to the Irishman's return to fitness. Not only is he the ball- winner and hard-tackler, his passing-range has also improved immensely since his arrival at the club in 1993. Alex Ferguson will hope, then, that he does not have to spend too much time tracking back and shadowing Baggio, and can instead concentrate on his own attacking game. That might be easier said than done, as Baggio is close to his very best. After two years in the Milan wilderness, followed by a slow rehabilitation via the unfashionable Bologna and the eminently more glamorous World Cup stage (where he made Alessandro del Piero look positively ordinary), "Divine Ponytail" is once again pulling the strings from the midfield - without the ponytail. Oh, and he can score goals too (four in the Champions' League this year).
BECKHAM V SIMEONE
Don't mention England-Argentina in
St Etienne. Simeone has gone on record as saying there was not much to that kick, and Beckham has shown strength of character by putting the red card and subsequent national furore behind him. If the United No 7 can stifle the Argentinian's late runs into the box, while still concentrating on his own passing and
pin-point crossing, he might feel fully exorcised. One major consideration, for both club and country, is whether Beckham should now move to a more central role. In a game where the Italian full-backs will be vulnerable to the wide-men's runs, though, Alex Ferguson will probably play Ryan Giggs on one wing and Beckham on the other. Inter will also have to be careful not to concede free kicks around the box, as Beckham is rapidly establishing himself as one of the best dead-ball specialists.
YORKE V BERGOMI
Not only has Dwight Yorke scored five goals already in this season's Champions' League, he has also looked every bit an international - albeit one from Tobago. His confrontation with the veteran of four World Cups and more than 100 European ties should be an intriguing one. Bergomi may now be 34 and slowing, but he is still one of the world's best man-markers and his positional play remains instinctive. He is unlikely to shoulder the burden of keeping Yorke in check on his own, and may act as the spare man in defence. Especially in Wednesday's game at Old Trafford, where the Italians are likely to play with five at the back. The key may actually be how Bergomi and his defensive partner, Francesco Colonnese, deal as a unit with the combined threat of the Yorke-Cole partnership. Experience and a touch of cynical play versus understanding and a lot of pace: the final outcome may rest on this battle.Reuse content