Football: United `skeletons' to fight to the death

t WORLD CLUB CHAMPIONSHIP Brazilian side Palmeiras seem to have edge in preparation as Sir Alex tells his makeshift squad to rise to occasion
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MANCHESTER UNITED will be seeking to add another first to their illustrious history when they take on Palmeiras, of Brazil, in the World Club Championship here today. Since the birth of the Intercontinental Cup in 1960 no British team has ever won it - either in the days when it was played home-and-away or since its 1980 reincarnation as the one- game Toyota Cup in Tokyo. Celtic, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest have all lost it, while Liverpool have been defeated twice. And Manchester United themselves were runners-up to Estudiantes, of Argentina, in 1968 after having a late goal disallowed in a match marred by constant fouling.

But recent history is a better guide to the next game than ancient. And Palmeiras have struggled to regain the form they showed last year when they won the Libertadores Cup, qualifying them to take on the European champions in today's game. Manchester United themselves have had a below- par season and have come to Tokyo on the back of a 2-0 defeat by Fiorentina. Yet for both teams this may only heighten the appetite for victory. Palmeiras will not have a chance of winning anything else this year, while Sir Alex Ferguson has challenged his team to raise their game. "We haven't reached the extent of our abilities this season yet so we should relish the challenge now," he said. "We've been very patient with the players this season. They know it's time to deliver."

There are no doubts about how big a game this is for Palmeiras. The Brazilian team arrived four days before United to allow plenty of recovery time after their gruelling 33-hour trip. And the coach, Luis Felipe Scolari, has stressed to his players that this is the most important club tournament of them all. Zinho was part of the Brazil team which won the World Cup in 1994. He said: "This is the chance for all of us to be world champions." The midfielder Cesar Sampaio echoed that sentiment: "At 31, and after losing the World Cup last year, I see Tuesday's game as a last chance for me."

Manchester United have defended themselves from questions about how seriously English teams take the Toyota Cup. "[Generally] the South Americans look upon it as more important. Perhaps that's why no English team has ever won it," said Sir Alex on arrival. "But we are serious about winning it. It is a world championship match. And Manchester United always have tried to win. That's the culture of the club.

"We can also identify with the seriousness Palmeiras are treating this game and I think in this situation we should match that seriousness and so we will hopefully be at our very best," he said.

The Colombian international and former Newcastle striker Faustino Asprilla will not be expecting an easy ride should he make the cut for today's game. "The English act like that - cool," he told the Brazilian press. "But they know how important the game is."

Sir Alex has brought what he calls a "skeleton squad" of 18 players, including first-team heavyweights and several flexible players - aiming to spare many players the 14-hour journey while covering for any situation. Andy Cole has been left in England with a back injury, and there is a doubt over Nicky Butt, who injured his arm in training on Sunday.

The Palmeiras squad have made their base outside Tokyo in Yokohama, a choice doubtless prompted by the fact that three senior Palmeiras players played together at the J-League's Yokohama Flugels: Cesar Sampaio, Evair and Zinho. Though the Flugels have since merged with Yokohama Marinos, the players retain links with people in the region, encouraging the relaxed atmosphere at their camp.

Speaking after a training session in Yokohama, Scolari expressed confidence in his team's preparedness. "I watched the United vs Fiorentina game and if we play with the same spirit as Fiorentina we can win," he said. He identified David Beckham as the danger man, citing the accuracy of his crossing, and expressed concern about United's rapid reflexes in the event of rebounds. But he said there will be no special arrangements for Beckham.

"Beckham is a very good player technically and the power that he gets into his kicks is fantastic," said Scolari. "As for marking him, I'm going to do the same thing that I would do for any other player. I'm not going to use two or three players to mark Beckham and we are going to apply the same marking that we would in other games.

"Manchester United are not about individuals and they are a good team because they are a collective unit, so we are not going to mark anyone specially or make arrangements for a particular player like Beckham. We're going to treat United as a whole."

Palmeiras will probably be fielding a team that includes stars of Brazil teams past and present - Zinho from the 1994 World Cup team, Sampaio and Junior Baiano from 1998, and the young talent, Alex. A sell-out crowd of 55,000 will be hoping that they and Manchester United will display some of the spectacular football that brought them to the Toyota Cup. But with both teams in something of a down phase, United will perhaps be satisfied with another first.