Football: United pressed to thrill: After Europe: Ferguson's side face a gruelling examination of stamina as Newcastle strive to stay ahead of the game - Ian Ridley says the champions' resilience will be tested to the limit

WITH the heart beating to Old Trafford's sound and fury, the head could forget for 90 uplifting minutes that Manchester United are in danger this season of falling between more stools than Oliver Reed. The wake-up call for the team from the theatre of dreams intrudes today, though, to begin 10 days that could determine the course of their season.

Ewood Park becomes the venue of verve this afternoon, as United's nearest championship challengers of last season, Blackburn Rovers, assault the limits of their resilience. Next Saturday, the brightest of the early contenders to replace them, the new United of Newcastle, visit Old Trafford.

Punctuating is a midweek rehearsal between the two at St James' Park, featuring Manchester United's Extra First XI. Then comes Barcelona II.

Early days that these are, United's defence may not withstand two Premiership defeats that would leave them with five in 12 matches when last season in 42 they lost only four. Exit from the League Cup would be tolerable but to fall in the Nou Camp would mean that United would need victories in Gothenburg and at home to Galatasary to qualify for the quarter- finals of the European Cup.

Privately, the United manager Alex Ferguson was hoping that seven points would be enough to progress from the Champions' League but Gothenburg's success, mainly in their victory over Barcelona, has caused him to revise the estimate to eight.

Such projections of the worst case are not unrealistic given the quality of the opposition, starting today. Chris Sutton is in frolicking good form alongside Alan Shearer as Blackburn present a different challenge from Barcelona; more in your face than head them off with the pass. No longer can United bully a point out of Blackburn, as they did in forcing a late equaliser in the encounter at Old Trafford last season.

At least United have Eric Cantona back, though Ryan Giggs will be missing again with an ankle injury, a problem that also keeps David May from returning to his old club. It will once more be for them a case of make do and mend, with Roy Keane, Paul Parker and Mark Hughes all called upon to delay operations in this phase of the season that Ferguson sees as a question of retaining interest in the two main competitions before intensifying challenges in the New Year.

To point out the pitfalls may seem curmudgeonly after the energy and excellence of the 2-2 draw against Barcelona - a sumptuous symmetry in a stadium that the words also describe - but while Ferguson will probably in public prefer to dwell on the words of the theme song adopted by supporters and look on the bright side, in the dressing room he will probably do the same himself.

It should not stop the citing of the match as inspiration. It appealed on many levels: that of occasion, of attacking play, of individual confrontations and of tactical sophistication. You wondered what England might achieve in an international match in such a setting, propelled by such support.

'The mentality of the two clubs won the day. Our tradition is to attack,' said Ferguson, who added: 'There is a tactical significance in matches like these.' Indeed, this was a 12-a-side game. Ferguson had won the day over Johan Cruyff 3 1/2 years ago in the European Cup- Winners' Cup final; this time the Barcelona coach came close to gaining revenge.

First blood went to Ferguson as Andrei Kanchelskis and Lee Sharpe, with swift service, exploited the space behind the wing backs, Ferri and Luis, who was being pursued by the ball like a cricket fielder who had dropped a catch. Mark Hughes may have looked a lone striker in a formation forced by the personnel available, but support arrived readily as United's transition from defence in depth to attack was so smooth.

Cruyff's response was to set loose Ronald Koeman in midfield for a period and the game duly changed. There were suggestions that he would be dropped to accommodate Gheorghe Hagi, injured as it transpired, but as Ferguson pointed out in a thought that might refer to 10 days' time: 'He never leaves out Koeman.' The Dutchman's pace may be suspect when left exposed - and United may be given more opportunity to exploit just such in the return - but his intelligence, potential with dead ball and passing ability remain undimmed.

Koeman's firm pass to Bakero was the key moment in the move that brought Romario's equaliser to Hughes's header, drawing as it did the Trojan touchstone Paul Ince out of the equation. His deep cross for the second then exploited the lack of height at United's core and consequently Ferguson's questionable decision to drop Steve Bruce's inspiration for the pace of Paul Parker as antidote to Romario. Then Koeman withdrew to form a back four that worked better until the well- heeled Sharpe intervened.

Ferguson, in that unique coach's way, saw them as 'two bad goals', and added: 'You wonder how many lessons you are going to get in this European thing.' At least United have clearly heeded the one force-fed by Galatasaray last year and Newcastle have not yet, of remaining disciplined when in possession of a commanding lead. Neither have Chelsea, as shown in their goalless draw against FK Austria the following night, absorbed the need for variety of attack and deeper passing to draw out defences, as have United.

Cruyff, referring to a game of two different styles, did pinpoint a weakness that United have still to correct: 'When they have the ball, they come out and play very quickly and get men in support. The problem for them is that they have to get the ball and for long periods they didn't' The pressing game requires more than just stamina.

Such nights as Wednesday inevitably provide evidence for those who would extend Champions' League to Super League. It will probably happen, as all things come to pass, and perhaps one day Manchester United will adapt their Coca-Cola approach to the Premiership with the full team reserved for Europe. There remain, however, too many obstacles, such as its composition and fixture list. Besides which, for every Barcelona at home, there is Galatasaray away. One modification, at least, should be the introduction of the otherwise now widespread three points, which might begin to counter the 0-0 draws creeping into the competition.

That was never a prospect, though, in Manchester on a night when even the Queen might have deemed herself accursed she was not there. Such a beautiful horizon can also be expected in Barcelona. 'I believe we'll score out there, no doubt about that,' Ferguson said.

But before then there is a little local difficulty to sort out, home points to be made and injuries to be avoided, against Blackburn and Newcastle. If they are not, United could yet become between-two-stool pigeons.

(Photograph omitted)

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