Football: Sharpe aiming to keep out Giggs: Plus-point for Champions' League - Glenn Moore on how two Englishmen have given inspiration to Manchester United

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The Independent Online
IT IS a pity the Royal Family are not football fans. The Queen would surely never have a bad word for Manchester if they were.

One trip to Old Trafford for a night of European action and HRH would not be able to stay away from the place. The Theatre of Dreams has staged two Champions' League ties this season and both have been rare classics.

Manchester United's 4-2 victory over IFK Gothenburg last month was thrilling enough, but Wednesday's 2-2 draw with Barcelona, a pulsating drama of class and commitment, eclipsed it for both quality and passion.

It would appear that the Champions' League has changed the nature of European football for the better. Whereas a narrow away defeat was often regarded as a satisfactory result under the two- legged system, it is worthless in the Champions' League. Something has to be taken from every game.

Much, however, still depends on the attitude of the teams. Newcastle's 3-2 win over Athletic Bilbao on Tuesday in the Uefa Cup - in which matches are still played over two legs - was infinitely more watchable than United's 0-0 draw away to Galatasaray last month. Similarly in Group D of the Champions' League, which includes Milan and Ajax, there have been just eight goals in six games, three of which were goalless.

Uefa's restriction on foreigners, however, generates less enthusiasm and there are strong moves from the wealthier clubs and television companies to have it changed. However, increasing the quota is likely to have only a limited effect. Johan Cruyff, Barcelona's manager, pointed out that if he was allowed to pick all four of his world-class foreign players instead of three he would simply go out and buy a fifth as cover for the others.

For the moment United, like Barcelona, have to cope as best they can. Yet one of the most heartening aspects of Wednesday's game for United was the impressive display of two of their English players, Paul Ince and Lee Sharpe. Alex Ferguson, the United manager, said Ince was 'magnificent'. So he was. The midfielder, 27 today, is that rare player, one able to break up opponents' attacks and also create them for his own team. When he was holding out for better terms at the beginning of the season Ferguson must have been stuggling to sleep at night at the prospect of losing him.

Since then Ince has been in stunning form. His game is improving too. At one stage on Wednesday Barcelona began giving United the run-around in the same way Romania had England the previous week at Wembley. Ince, in opposition both times, refused to be toyed with. With the help of Roy Keane, he dragged United back into the game, just as he had England.

But if Ince's performance was expected, Sharpe's was a revelation as he recaptured the form that won him an England place. If there was a fault it was the quality of his crossing early in the game. However, Ryan Giggs, whose left-wing place he assumed on Wednesday, is not noted for the consistency of his crosses either.

Sharpe said earlier this month that his aim was to displace Giggs on the left wing. 'I hate playing at full-back,' he said. 'I have told the manager that and he has said he does not consider me as a full- time left-back.

'It is between me and Giggsy for the left-wing spot and I am not giving up.

If I am to get back into the England team it will be in that position - not as a full-back.'

Sharpe's good form - and the regular fluctuations in the form of the man he replaced - have suddenly made Giggs' place in the team vulnerable when Eric Cantona returns to European competition. Cantona's four-match suspension ends after the return game in Barcelona in 12 days' time.

With Cantona, Andrei Kanchelskis, Peter Schmeichel and Mark Hughes all near-certainties to play, Giggs, Keane and Denis Irwin will contest the position of fifth 'foreigner' in the United team.

Injuries and suspensions may decide matters. David May will also miss the Barcelona game after receiving his second yellow card, while Paul Parker, Keane and Hughes all have operations pending.

With May out, Steve Bruce is likely to return in the Nou Camp after the surprising decision to leave him on the substitutes' bench this week.

Ferguson must also look at United's defending in other areas of the pitch.

Ronald Koeman demonstrated again on Wednesday that, for all his lack of pace, he can destroy a defence with his long-range passing. Both Barcelona goals were set up by him and the visitors should have scored a third: Koeman's best pass was wasted by poor control from, of all people, Romario.

There remain worries that large numbers of United fans will travel without tickets to the Nou Camp. All tickets for the official club trips have been sold and there are fears that United fans who travel independently might purchase tickets in areas of the ground reserved for home supporters.

However, the warm ovation both sets of supporters accorded each other after the match on Wednesday bodes as well for prospects off the field as the match does on it.