Football: United ready to fulfil their promise

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The Independent Online
There is an air of certainty surrounding Manchester United as they prepare to meet Juventus tonight. As Ian Ridley reports from Turin, for once Alex Ferguson's side are in a position of strength.

An element of football's enduring appeal for its followers will always be its changeability - this could be our year; ah, well, there's always next time. Probably no fixture illustrates better how fortunes can turn around, for better and worse from one season to the next than tonight's Champions' League match between Juventus and Manchester United in the Stadio delle Alpi in Turin.

At the beginning of last season, United were thoroughly outclassed by Juventus, fortunate indeed to be only a goal down after a torrid first half. Improvement came in the second half and the return match at Old Trafford, but 1-0 defeats resulted both times as Juve looked certain to retain the European Cup, only for Borussia Dortmund to interrupt such reverie.

"There was no expression in our play. We were overpowered, intimidated," Alex Ferguson, the United manager, admitted yesterday as he pondered last season's meeting here. "But," he added with a certainty that mirrors most of what United do these days, "I think we won't be tomorrow."

Ferguson's words reflected not only the growth in his own young team, who have already qualified for the quarter-finals after five consecutive wins, but also Juventus's plight. After their surprising defeat by Feyenoord a fortnight ago, they must win and hope that results from other groups fall into place to see them as one of the best two runners-up from the six groups.

It looks a long shot, especially when one considers that Bayer Leverkusen and Monaco can play out a draw and both go through, one as group winner, one as a runner-up. Thus, realistically, is only one slot available.

Neither are Juventus in the best shape. Their leading striker, Alessandro Del Piero, scorer of both goals in the 2-1 win over Lazio at the weekend which saw them cut Internazionale's lead at the top of Serie A to two points, is suspended, while another striker, Nicola Amoruso, has a broken leg.

Having sold Michele Padovano to Crystal Palace, it leaves the Juve coach, Marcello Lippi, with only two strikers in Filippo Inzaghi and Daniel Fonseca. In addition, the French midfield player Didier Deschamps is missing with a pulled leg muscle.

By contrast, United are in sound health, save for Paul Scholes, suspended for Premiership action but available in Europe, who has flu and has not made the trip. Ferguson had earmarked him for a game, but instead Ole- Gunnar Solskjaer is likely to replace Ryan Giggs, who has a yellow card and would miss the first leg of the quarter-final should he acquire another, as the only change from Saturday's 3-1 defeat of Liverpool.

That result, allied to several equally rampant recently, sees United in confident mood. In departure lounge, on aeroplane and at hotel yesterday, smiling faces abounded. No matter which 11 Ferguson sends out these days, it seems, they take on the look of a self- assured, buoyant unit.

"I think there is a feeling that we just can't lose a game," the United goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel, said. "We thought that last season was going to be our season and there was a sad atmosphere in the dressing-room after we lost here. We've all got bad experiences of previous years when maybe we were too anxious, maybe thinking about the games too much. But now we are relaxed and we are very confident."

Another change is in the physical appearance of the two teams. Only after the return match last year did he voice it, for fear of alarming his team, but Ferguson was taken aback by how much bigger Juve looked. With strikers Alen Boksic and Christian Vieri now sold, and United's young players having filled out, the red shirts seem fuller and prouder.

With Ferguson insisting his team will not ease up despite their qualification, as it would not be tolerated from Manchester United, it could be that we witness the full flow of a team reaching a level of maturity and excellence in Europe - to match their performances at home - that Ferguson probably hoped for but did not dare to expect, especially since the competition expanded this season.

"In relation to last season, we have to show improvement in terms of authority," the task-master said. "Against Feyenoord, we showed great authority and command and hopefully we will have the confidence to express ourselves, which is important to me. From what people tell me, it will be a 75,000 sell-out and will be a real test, which is brilliant for my players."