Football: United primed to defy history

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MANCHESTER UNITED usually secrete themselves in an out-of-town hideaway when they venture into Europe. Here, they are staying so close to the San Siro stadium their players will be able to gaze upon its candy- striped staircases when they open their curtains this morning.

As the choice of accommodation illustrates, United are approaching tonight's European Champions' Cup quarter-final, second leg with Internazionale feeling confident, rather than intimidated, despite the weight of history against them. In more than four decades of European competition United have never knocked out an Italian club. Indeed, they have lost all six previous ties in Italy scoring just once goal, a Norman Whiteside strike in a Cup-Winners' Cup tie against Juventus 15 seasons ago.

Alex Ferguson's personal record is no better. His only overseas success against an Italian club was a 3-2 victory against Fiorentina in a pre- season friendly in New York during his playing days at Rangers. No wonder he said yesterday that "Italian clubs are the barometer of success in Europe".

Yet Ferguson and his players believe they can write a new chapter in Anglo-Italian football lore, one which confounds the usual plot. "We come in good heart. We're in good form," said Ferguson yesterday. "It is a real test for my players but it's one I know we'll handle well."

His confidence stems from the two-goal advantage United secured at Old Trafford a fortnight ago. The clean sheet which accompanied it means that if United can score once Inter will have to score four to put them out. Ferguson does not consider that a possibility and said: "If we get one goal that will win it. Away goals are vital at this stage and I think we'll score. We have proved, in going to Barcelona and scoring three, and going to Bayern Munich and scoring twice, that we are capable of doing it. I don't see why Inter Milan should represent a bigger challenge."

History may be against them but form is in their favour. While United have won all six away matches this year, scoring 20 goals, and are unbeaten in 17 matches, Inter have not won in six games, scoring three goals in that time. They will have Ronaldo back, but he is short of match fitness and caused further concern earlier this week when he missed training with "a headache".

Ferguson said United had formulated a plan to deal with the Brazilian, which probably involves Ronnie Johnsen, but their view was summed up by Roy Keane when he said: "We don't fear anyone, and that includes Ronaldo."

Inter's uncertainty, over themselves and their Brazilian, is such that they highlight him as the potential matchwinner while playing down his individual importance. Their true view was perhaps expressed by Ferguson when he added: "Sometimes a team can rely too much on one player but some players deserve that. Inter look to Ronaldo for his inspiration."

Ronaldo is expected to replace Youri Djorkaeff, but one player who will not be returning is Paolo Sousa, who has been dropped from the squad after claiming their coach, Mircea Lucescu, was sending 11 players onto the pitch and telling them to get on with it. He said he was pessimistic about their chances against United.

Lucescu is also unhappy with Ferguson's weekend comments about expecting "dirty tricks". Gianluca Pagliuca, the Inter goalkeeper, said: "All this nonsense from United shows they are feeling the strain and are scared."

Ferguson was careful yesterday not to repeat his comments, but again stressed the need for a good referee. Gilles Veissiere, a Frenchman with a penchant for Nordic skiing and angling, will be in charge. He upset Liverpool in November when dismissing Paul Ince and Steve McManaman in Valencia but impressed Ferguson on United's last trip to Italy, a 1-0 defeat by Juventus. Assuming he and United keep their heads in a hostile atmosphere the Premiership leaders, and FA Cup semi-finalists, ought to maintain their three-pronged challenge for honours.

Probable teams: Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; G Neville, Johnsen, Stam, *Irwin; Beckham, *Keane, *Scholes, Giggs; Yorke; Cole.

Internazionale (1-2-4-1-2): Pagliuca; Bergomi; Colonnese, West; Zanetti, Cauet, Simeone, Silvestre; Baggio; Ronaldo, *Zamorano.

Referee: G Veissiere (France).

*On yellow card; suspended for next match if booked again.