Football: Safe cracker of Monte Carlo

Glenn Moore believes that United's European ambitions are in good hands
Click to follow
The Independent Online
ONE OF the enduring images of Manchester United's early stumbling attempts to win the Champions' League is the sight of Peter Schmeichel sitting glumly in the Nou Camp while his team-mates were humiliated by Barcelona.

Three seasons on, Schmeichel's place in the side is as safe as his handling. The giant Dane has reserved some of his best form for Europe and, in the Champions' Cup quarter-final first-leg in Monte Carlo on Wednesday night, Monaco's players were no more likely to get past him than a punter enter the casino without a passport.

Back in late 1994 Schmeichel was left out because United had too many foreigners under the old rules. The irony is that now those restrictions have been lifted it no longer matters to United - they fielded just three foreigners on Wednesday plus Denis Irwin, who would have been regarded as an assimilated player in the pre-Bosman days.

While it no longer affects team selection it is, however, a bonus to United to have so many English players - eight on Wednesday plus the injured Gary Pallister. "I think that helps build a good team spirit," said Gary Neville. "The majority of the players are British and the foreign players we have fit in perfectly and complement the home-based players."

Shades here of Stuart Pearce, during Nottingham Forest's European exploits of a few seasons ago, shouting as the players waited in the tunnel before one tie. "Just remember, you'll win because you're English." Presumably this also served to motivate Bryan Roy, Alf-Inge Haaland, David Phillips and Scott Gemmill, though evidently not Andrea Silenzi.

But as Glenn Hoddle, who had returned to his former club to watch United, said: "It makes sense. They all play together for England and that helps us and United."

It is telling, also, that United's foreign players are mainly Scandinavian, the closest equivalent to a British player in Europe. It is not just that they all speak English, they are also noted for their stamina, work ethic and consistency. That they grew up following English football and, like some of United's Norwegians, are even playing for a team they supported as a boy is another bonus.

Of course the most influential United player in recent years - along with Schmeichel - was Eric Cantona, a Frenchman. He brought to the club the good habits in practice and conditioning which are customary in continental Europe. If he did not perform well enough, often enough, in Europe for United, his legacy lives on in the young players' approach to their trade. Not for the first time on Tuesday night Alex Ferguson had to order his players to stop training before they wore themselves out (he was also eager to get them off the car park pitch).

Cantona's influence is also still evident in United's play. He possessed a range of vision and technical ability rare in England when he arrived and still uncommon. In one training session he kept his team-mates passing and passing until one said: "What's the point, we're in the same positions we started in?" Cantona, pointing at the defenders, responded: "But they're not." Jean Tigana, the Monaco coach and an old friend of Cantona, said: "English teams have never given you a chance to relax mentally but there are now clear signs of progress in the way they play since you started importing high-quality foreign players."

Ferguson and his players have also learned by experience since that dark night in the Nou Camp. Then the manager left Schmeichel out to incorporate Andrei Kanchelskis; it is hard to imagine he would take such an attacking decision now away from home in Europe.

"In the past we have probably been a bit naive and gone full throttle but this time we were disciplined and did not take risks," said Ferguson of Wednesday night. "In Europe you should try to play your normal game as much as possible," added Gary Neville, "but away from home we have had some harsh lessons. In Juventus last year I took a throw-in, Pally [Pallister] came up for it [Neville's long throws are almost a corner], and they went up the other end and scored [with Nicky Butt attempting to halt Alen Boksic's successful surge for goal]. You think, 'Maybe we won't do that again, maybe next time only one defender will go up'. It is important, as a full-back, to 'sit' a bit more. At Old Trafford I probably go forward every time the attack is on my side, but not in Europe."

United have also learned by observation. Some of them watched, on television, the home Uefa Cup victories of Lazio and Internazionale over Auxerre and Schalke 04. Said Schmeichel: "We saw that the Italian clubs, when they have the chance to win at home, shut up shop. We were solid, never impatient and never panicked. We now have experience in Europe." Telling, also, was the way United - unlike Chelsea the following night - kept their feet in the tackle and their positional discipline.

For the return, at Old Trafford on 18 March, Monaco will have David Trezeguet back to provide the attacking focus they missed in midweek. United are unlikely to be similarly lifted by the presence of Ryan Giggs but, if they take care in defence and take chances in attack, they should progress to the last four.