Football: Rivals' failings comfort United

All the fancied teams in the Champions' League are struggling to impose their authority.
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The Independent Online
MANCHESTER UNITED'S weary players struggled back into the city's Ringway airport yesterday lunchtime, 11 hours and two points behind schedule. While the team's return home had been delayed by technical problems and German airport regulations, their Champions' League progress had been disrupted by a Danish brainstorm.

Peter Schmeichel's misery, in the long waiting hours, was compounded by a stomach injury which is likely to keep him out of United's next two matches after it was exacerbated during Wednesday's 2-2 draw with Bayern Munich.

The first of these is against Southampton at The Dell tomorrow. Though Southampton are struggling they have an excellent home record against United who will not relish the long journey south so soon after their delayed return.

If there was any consolation for United it came from studying the other results. After just two matches only Spartak Moscow, of the 24 Champions' League entrants, have an unblemished record while only Sturm Graz, in the same group C, are without a point. It appears that, unlike last season when 12 points was the minimum, quarter-final places will be claimed with as little as 10 points.

Alex Ferguson certainly feels this is the case. Yesterday he was hoping for a scenario in which Bayern Munich and Barcelona damaged each other with a brace of draws over the next two matches while United took six points from Brondby beginning with the tie in Copenhagen on 21 October. That would leave United top with eight points and Barcelona second with six. A point each from the visit to Barcelona on 25 November and Munich's trip to Old Trafford on 9 December and United would probably be through.

At present that would seem to be the limit to their ambition. While United have played well in patches against both Barcelona and Bayern they have not looked like contenders for the trophy. Having conceded five goals in two games the defending, though Gary Neville and Jaap Stam are looking a possible partnership, is causing concern and the midfield will continue to lack authority until Roy Keane is back to match fitness. In attack Dwight Yorke, while growing into the role, is unlikely to be seen at his best until Ferguson has found the right partner.

In addition, unusually for United since Ince, Hughes and Cantona departed, there is a discipline problem developing. Nicky Butt's dismissal, for handball against Barcelona, was one of those things but David Beckham's bookings against Barcelona and Munich, which will keep him out of the first Brondby match, were foolish. The subsequent unpunished elbowing of Hasan Salihamidzic was even worse.

Lou Macari, watching the game for Talk Radio, said afterwards: "He was a lucky boy not to be sent off. He lost his head." Beckham had a good first half but, having been told to calm down, was, noted Macari, "anonymous in the second".

Macari - who has attracted a few adverse headlines himself, as a young player with Celtic and Manchester United and as a manage - was understanding about the pressure of the spotlight on Beckham, but was just as aware that he would have to learn to cope with it.

Not that United are the only slow starters. Bayern, Juventus and Dynamo Kiev are also without a win while Real Madrid, Internazionale and PSV Eindhoven have lost matches. Many of these teams are, like United, still trying to integrate expensive new signings. In the old days of the European Cup a big team might not have faced genuine opposition until the spring, now they are encountering fellow giants in autumn.

Never mind the performance, the key thing is to qualify. In the four previous Champions' League seasons Paris St-Germain, Spartak Moscow, Porto and, last year, Manchester United themselves strode imperiously through the group stages only to falter when the knock-out rounds began. Milan in 1995, Juventus last year and United two years ago each found their form at that stage, the former two reaching the final and United being unfortunate not to do the same.

The only sure thing is that qualification will go to the wire. On Wednesday four matches were settled by last-minute goals - Ajax, Galatasaray and Inter winning with them and Bayern gaining a draw. This followed four similarly decisive strikes in the previous round of games, including Lens' against Arsenal's. It underlines how evenly matched most of these teams are, and how narrow the divide between glory and despair.