Football: United in quest for approval: Ferguson haunted by ghosts of past failures as Premiership champions seek a place among the European elite

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WHILE the ghosts of a glorious past will again haunt Old Trafford tonight, the memory of more recent spectres concerns Alex Ferguson as his Manchester United team resume their quest to be ranked alongside the club's greats.

United play the Swedish champions, IFK Gothenburg, in the opening match of the European Champions' League and Ferguson is acutely aware that for all his side's domestic triumphs, this competition is the benchmark by which United sides are judged. Only by winning it can they earn the legendary status accorded the 1958 Busby Babes - who probably would have won the Cup had they not perished at Munich - and that of Charlton, Law and Best who did so a decade later.

Ferguson is also mindful of last year's failure when United were knocked out by Galatasaray in the second round - the first time in six attempts the club had failed to reach the semi-finals. Then they threw away a two-goal lead at home, drawing 3-3 and going out on the away-goals rule. It followed similar disasters going back to 1986 when, as manager of Aberdeen, he saw his team concede a wasteful late goal at home to Gothenburg which cost a place in the semi-finals of the Cup-Winners' Cup.

Of the Aberdeen match, Ferguson remembered 'we were in control, then in the last minute Willie Miller broke forward, he gave the ball away and they got in behind him and scored. In Europe you get slaughtered if you give away space. You have to show discipline and awareness, I want to keep the passion of our domestic performances but we must be patient.

'Against Galatasaray we were 2-0 up after 13 minutes and we should have held it. Had we been playing a better- known side we probably would have but we kept bombing forward and got caught. I hope the players have learned their lesson.' The levelling of standards in Europe, and the restrictions of Uefa's rule on foreigners, make Ferguson's task harder than in Sir Matt Busby's day; but the introduction of the Champions' League - and United's direct entry to it - makes it easier. This season, one bad performance - as against Galatasaray - would not necessarily signal an exit. Teams are in two groups of four where they play each other at home and away, with the group winners playing the runners-up in the other group in the semi- finals.

'With the League (Galatasaray, again, and Barcelona are United's other opponents) the key thing is to get something from every game,' Ferguson said. 'That's six points and if you win two of the three home ones that's eight. I think nine points (of 12 possible) will definitely be enough to make the semi-finals, eight probably will and even seven might.'

The five-foreigners rule will bite, even with Eric Cantona suspended. Either Dennis Irwin or Brian McClair is likely to be sacrificed with Lee Sharpe playing at left-back (if Irwin makes way) or left-wing (if McClair does). The latter solution would see Ryan Giggs operating alongside Mark Hughes in central attack, the former would involve Hughes playing a lone role with McClair supporting from midfield.

Gothenburg will include seven members of the Swedish squad who finished third in the World Cup including the impressive goalkeeper Thomas Ravelli, the former Everton midfielder Stefan Rehn and central defender Joachim Bjorklund - a target for Wimbledon.

Though Bjorklund would prefer Italy, Wimbledon interest him. 'They are my favourite English side,' he said. 'I like the way they make the most of what they have got.'

Ravelli, who became noted for his penalty saves in America, loudly interjected 'we are not afraid of them' when the manager Roger Gustafsson said his team saw so much of United on Swedish television he was worried they might think they were too good.

Ravelli, 35 and Sweden's goalkeeper since 1981, added: 'We respect them but do not fear them. We don't have big stars but we play as a team as Swedish sides do.'

Gothenburg, who twice won the Uefa Cup in the Eighties, will be difficult opponents but, if United are to maintain genuine hopes of emulating the 1968 European Cup triumph, this is the type of match they have to win.

Manchester United (probable): Schmeichel; May, Pallister, Bruce, Irwin; Kanchelskis, Butts, Ince, Sharpe; Hughes, Giggs.

IFK Gothenburg (probable): Ravelli; Kamark, Bjorklund, Olsson, Nilsson; Martinsson, Rehn, Lindquist, Blomquist; Pettersson, Erlingmark.