Football: Red devils fly in for vengeance

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THE IMAGE remains as vivid as Romario's quicksilver feet and Gary Pallister's torment. A brooding Peter Schmeichel, his face impassive, his heart racing, sitting high in the Nou Camp watching Barcelona rip Manchester United apart.

It was four years ago this month and a lot of goals have flowed under the crossbar since, and many more been kept out, but Schmeichel still remembers that agonising night. "It was frustrating, watching but being unable to do anything," he said yesterday. "We had problems with the team we put out and it wasn't a very good performance."

The Danish goalkeeper was speaking after arriving in Barcelona for another tilt at the Catalan club, only this time United have the upper hand. In 1994 they were babes in the Champions' League forest, their inexperience compounded by the Uefa's pre-Bosman restrictions on foreign players. Schmeichel was one of the players omitted to comply with the ruling and Barcelona took ruthless advantage to destroy them 4-0.

Tonight United return to the Nou Camp with confidence. Barcelona, hit by injury and dissent, are bottom of Group D, United are top. The Spanish champions also trail the unfashionable Real Mallorca and Celta Vigo in La Liga and the heady expectation of their centenary season is rapidly turning to disillusionment. Anything but victory tonight and their Champions' League campaign is over. United can afford to lose for they will still qualify if they defeat Bayern Munich at Old Trafford next month. United, though, are going for victory, especially those who remember the previous humiliation: Denis Irwin, Roy Keane, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes.

Schmeichel has an extra incentive. Four years ago he was at the height of his powers but recent mistakes against Bayern, Brondby and, on Saturday, Sheffield Wednesday, suggest he is on the wane. He admits he is struggling to maintain his former standards, and will retire from the English game at the end of the season, but tonight he can show he remains capable of the displays which saw him become the world's best.

"He'll play and I've no worries about him," said Alex Ferguson of Schmeichel. The Manchester United manager added: "In Giovanni, Luis Figo, Sonny Anderson and Rivaldo, Barcelona have a formidable attack and that could be important in a game which may be decided by attacks."

Barcelona's problems are in defence with Abelardo, Winston Bogarde, Phillip Cocu, and Luis Enrique injured and Mauricio Pellegrino ineligible. In addition Nadal and Michael Reiziger are doubtful. "You never know who is really injured until the game but they will be missing some formidable players," said Ferguson. "We will be missing Ryan Giggs and Ronny Johnsen but that is why you have squads."

Jesper Blomqvist is cover for Giggs, but Ferguson may play Nicky Butt to stiffen the midfield. He has also to decide between Phil Neville and Wes Brown at right-back, Gary Neville having replaced Johnsen at centre- back.

"We're not favourites, not in the Nou Camp," said Ferguson, "but we have the ability and temperament to do well. Our level of play has been good in Europe. The players are focussed and we have had a goal threat. Barcelona outplayed us at times at Old Trafford and they worried our players with the possession they had but they do not have someone who makes goals out of nothing like Romario could. They are not capable of beating us 4-0 again."

"We had players that night who were kids, now they are internationals," recalled Schmeichel. "We have learned since, we have established a pattern of play in Europe which we are happy with. Tight in defence but with lots of attacking options."

If the rain holds off, a crowd of 90,000 is expected, but their unquestioning support cannot be assured. Six months after winning a domestic double, Louis van Gaal, Barcelona's manager, is under pressure, the team's poor results exacerbated by its Dutch accent. It is suggested that only the huge cost of paying off his contract is keeping him in a job but in some quarters his coach, the former Barcelona and Netherlands defender Ronald Koeman, is already believed to be agitating for his job. "When you win things in football it is always more difficult to repeat the success," said Ferguson, "nor will the injuries have helped."

Sympathetic words but, after his experiences in the Nou Camp, Ferguson will not be upset if his team add to van Gaal's troubles. United have long wanted to lay the memory of 1994 to rest, they will rarely have a better chance to do so.

Barcelona (probable): Hesp; Celedes, Reiziger, Okunowo, Sergi; Giovanni, Xavi, Zenden; Figo, Anderson, Rivaldo.

Manchester United (probable): Schmeichel; P Neville (or Brown), G Neville, Stam, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Blomqvist (or Butt); Yorke, Cole.