Football: United refuse to take Feyenoord win for granted

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The Independent Online
Everything is rosy in the footballing garden of Alex Ferguson. Guy Hodgson reports on how the biggest dilemma facing the Manchester United manager is which striker to leave out of tonight's Champions' League game.

A happy scene is developing on Manchester United's travels in Europe. Kosice sacked their coach just before they met the English champions last month and now Feyenoord approach tonight's match in a similarly leaderless condition. It brings to mind Napoleon's preference for lucky rather than good generals.

Fate seems to be beaming enticingly at Alex Ferguson. He has lost his captain, Roy Keane, to a cruciate ligament injury, but that apart the season could hardly be going much more to plan. Three wins in the Champions' League, a four-point lead in the Premiership and his side bursting with goals - the United manager must fear opening his eyes in the morning in case the whole thing is a dream.

To put his worries in perspective, the biggest headache Ferguson will have in Rotterdam tonight will be which of his goal-laden strikers he will have to omit. Compare that to Feyenoord, who had to put a profile of their 71-year-old press officer in the match programme because there was no coach to write about, and you get problems on a different scale.

Like David Pleat, Arie Haan lost his job soon after the Old Trafford defeat, and tonight Feyenoord will be under the direction of Geert Meijer, who played for Birmingham City in the 1970s and who will be assisted by the former Nottingham Forest and Tottenham midfield player, Johnny Metgod.

This will be a temporary arrangement because the former Netherlands and Real Madrid coach, Leo Beenhakker, is understood to be negotiating a release from his directorship at Vitesse Arnhem - and it is his imminent arrival that concerns Ferguson.

"A new man comes in," he said, "and sometimes that provokes a response from the players. Our concentration will have to be very good. At the moment we're playing well and hopefully that confidence and form will carry over into this match. It won't be easy because although we could have scored more goals at Old Trafford, Feyenoord played some nice football," Ferguson said.

United won the home match with last season's Dutch runners-up 2-1, but they wasted so many chances in the process that Ferguson berated his players for possessing the killer touch of Mary Poppins. Barnsley and Sheffield Wednesday have borne the backlash since with 13 goals, which in turn has produced a dilemma of a different kind for the manager.

Andy Cole, the profligate-in-chief against Feyenoord, has scored five times in two matches since, but his renewed confidence is not so robust to stand rejection now. So the choice of who should stand down for the fit-again Ryan Giggs would appear to rest between Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who has made most of Cole's goals, or Teddy Sheringham, whose best performances since his move from Tottenham have been in Europe.

To complicate matters, all three strikers scored twice on Saturday, but Ferguson is the last man to dwell on such trifles. "The important thing is that we pick the right team for this match," he said, refusing to be drawn on his choice. "The result is the important thing."

If United win tonight they will have 12 points from four games in Group B and it will take a strange combination of scores to deny them a quarter- final place as one of the best two runners-up at worst. Already European perception of the team has changed from one that lost five games and was lucky to reach the semi-finals last year to another that has a realistic chance of winning the competition.

"Any player wants to do well in Europe," Ferguson replied to a Dutch journalist who wondered whether United are good enough. "It's a matter of pride, of improvement and a mark of their ambitions.

`What happened last year was a good thing because even a bad experience is good for you. Our best performance of the season so far was against Juventus, and it was because we were better aware of their strengths. That shows the players are young enough to take things in and to go even further.

"We're not taking anything for granted. We're talking there of something that is happening in May - the priority is what's happening in Rotterdam in November. I think we're sensible enough to realise we have to do a job here and worry about other things later."

Ferguson was talking from a position of strength. At the moment, the worry lines appear on managers about to meet United.