Football: Seeding forces new agenda on United

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The Independent Online
DILEMMAS ARE the football manager's lot and Sir Alex Ferguson has a large one to ponder before tonight. On one hand he wants to rest weary players; on the other, he would like to beat Sturm Graz at Old Trafford to ensure Manchester United finish top of Champions' League Group D and acquire seeded status for the second phase. How he balances this wish list will dictate the character of the match.

In an ideal world he would like to field a Worthington Cup-type team, go gung-ho in pursuit of an entertaining match and allow tired players a night off. However, he is already without the suspended David Beckham and Paul Scholes and as fellow-qualifiers Marseilles could yet overtake United and secure the favoured spot he will reluctantly field Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs and a fair degree of caution.

"Last week there was a sense of relief after we qualified in Zagreb but now there is a new agenda," Sir Alex said. "The seeding issue has made it an important game for us because we need to be No 1 in the group. We're not afraid of the big clubs but we would prefer to avoid them if we can."

Sir Alex has said Gary Neville, David May, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Mark Wilson will definitely start but while a team supplemented by United's reserves would probably have been strong enough to dispose of the Austrian side who began the Champions' League programme so disappointingly, they have made large strides since, winning their last two games, and are the favourites to take the third place spot that will ensure a Uefa Cup place.

"It takes time to get used to the Champions' League," Sir Alex said, "and we were lucky to play them so soon.

"The 3-0 scoreline flattered us because they had several chances and since then they have scored three goals against Zagreb and Marseilles, which shows they're a good side."

The advantage for both teams at Old Trafford is that as long as they match the result in Marseilles they will finish above their respective rivals. So if Croatia Zagreb, who dismissed their coach, Ossie Ardiles, last week, begin to succumb to a hatful of goals, for example, Graz can ease off. Similarly, the pressure will be off United if Marseilles fall behind.

Last season United and Bayern Munich unashamedly played out the last 20 minutes at Old Trafford once they knew a 1-1 draw would be beneficial for both sides and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the closing stages tonight will stoop to the same "after you" depths. It can be safely assumed that both benches will have intelligence coming in from the south of France.

The intelligence flowing from Old Trafford yesterday was that reports over the weekend that Keane will definitely leave United when his contract runs out this summer are premature. "I know more than anyone," Sir Alex said, "and we haven't given up hope. He will make his decision when he is ready."