Football: United must kick bad habits

Champions' League: Ferguson orders defence to cut out early mistakes that have cost them dearly in the past
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MONACO TOOK six minutes, Borussia Dortmund five, Juventus took one and Barcelona, last month, scored within 50 seconds. In recent years in the big European matches, Manchester United have had a predilection for conceding early goals.

It is an unfortunate habit and "one that's got to stop", according to the United manager, Alex Ferguson. With his team needing to beat Bayern Munich at Old Trafford tonight to ensure qualification for the Champions' League quarter- finals there is no time like the present to kick the problem. The goals by Dortmund and Monaco, both at Old Trafford, led to United's departure from the last two competitions and Ferguson will be impressing upon his players the need to concentrate straight from the kick-off.

The problem is United are rarely tested in the early stages of domestic matches as most opponents are more intent on keeping a clean sheet than spoiling theirs. In Europe it is a different story. "You could analyse the goals one by one but it comes down to good teams liking to make an early impact," Ferguson said.

It is a weakness that one of tonight's Old Trafford opponents knows all about. Ottmar Hitzfeld was the jubilant Dortmund manager when Lars Ricken effectively ended United's European challenge five minutes into the 1997 quarter-final.

Now Hitzfeld returns with Bayern having imposed an uncommon discipline on the `Hollywood FC'. As well as leading Group D of the Champions' League, despite losing their first match to Brondby, they are second in the Bundesliga and play the leaders, Bayer Leverkusen, on Saturday.

That, and the fact that Bayern may well go through even if they lose, may help a United side which will enjoy the rare luxury of being at full strength with Ryan Giggs coming into the side which drew 1-1 at Aston Villa on Saturday.

Giggs could be crucial in unpicking a Bayern defence which has only conceded six goals in 10 games and is likely to sit deep to compensate for 37-year- old Lothar Matthaus's lack of pace. Ahead of him Stefan Effenberg, who seems finally to have found the platform he has sought throughout his career, will attempt to take advantage of United's need to push forward by releasing the prolific Brazilian, Giovanne Elber, behind the United defence.

To counter, United have a front six which Ferguson regards as the most potent of his dozen years at Old Trafford. United have scored 50 goals in 20 games this season with the partnership of Dwight Yorke (12) and Andy Cole (8) averaging a goal-a-game.

"We have a goal threat," said Ferguson, who looked relaxed as he held court in one of Old Trafford's many function suites. "If someone had said at the start of this group that we would score eight goals against Barcelona and Bayern Munich in three matches with one more to come you would have said: How many suns are there in the sky?"

Despite the rival attraction of Bayern's simultaneous press conference a few miles away, Ferguson drew an audience of 40 journalists and 11 television camera crews. "It is one of those challenging football matches which makes you a little bit nervous but also excited," he added. "I'm looking forward to it."

So, according to Elber, are Bayern. "United are very good in attack but we see that they are vulnerable in defence. That's why we have a chance," he said. Hitzfeld believed United had improved from two years ago but added that this Bayern side were better than his Dortmund one - which went on to win the trophy. Matthaus, meanwhile, spoke respectfully of English football and the "90 minutes of fighting".

Dortmund stunned United by winning 1-0 at Old Trafford, thanks to that early Ricken goal, to complete a 2-0 aggregate victory. In this scenario Bayern need only a point and United all three, but given the standings in the other groups the Germans should progress regardless and United will almost certainly go through with a draw as one of the two best runners- up, particularly with their superior goal difference.

Roy Keane, with characteristic simplicity, put it all in perspective. "People have been trying to work out all the variations but if we win we're through - that's what we're aiming for."

Bayern, who are surprisingly making their first visit to Old Trafford, are on pounds 100,000-a-man to qualify. Their hosts are on far less but tonight is about glory not money and, if they can avoid that early goal, United should ensure they are still in line for both when the competition resumes next spring.

When asked if he had decided on his team, Hitzfeld replied: "I will wait until after the last training session. Perhaps overnight I will have a stroke of genius."

Bayern are expected to field Jens Jeremies, Effenberg and Thomas Strunz in a three-man midfield, with two wing-backs and Matthaus as sweeper behind two central defenders. Elber will spearhead their attack in tandem with either Alexander Zickler or Carsten Jancker.

Mario Basler and Thomas Helmer are expected to be on the bench, while Mehmet Scholl and the Iranian Ali Daei are unavailable because of injury.

Manchester United (Probable, 4-4-2): Schmeichel; Brown, G Neville, Stam, Irwin; Beckham, Scholes, Keane, Giggs; Cole, Yorke.

Bayern Munich (Probable, 1-2-4-3): Kahn; Matthaus; Babbel, Helmer; Strunz, Basler, Jeremies, Effenberg, Lizarazu; Elber, Jancker.