Football: United stirred by a bigger cup

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THIS Manchester United team, according to the manager Alex Ferguson, enjoy the big games and need to feel the tension and significance associated with them to be at their best. Those who wish England's representatives in the Champions' Cup well on Wednesday night will hope he is right, given United's recent stumbles against opposition who can also rise to the occasion.

United seemed to have emerged from a dark winter period of three rare Premiership defeats in quick succession with victories over Aston Villa and Derby County, but then came Barnsley. Ferguson's priority this season, 40 years after Munich and 30 on from the European triumph at Wembley, has always been the Champions' Cup but it is likely they will go into Wednesday's quarter-final first leg in Monaco with some self-doubt as legacy of the mixed domestic form. Enter Ferguson's theory.

Monaco, a soft touch according to some when the draw was made, might be said to be in a similar position. After also reaching the quarter-finals impressively, they were beaten at home in the French League by the bottom club Cannes before putting four past Montpellier. Last week, though, defeat by Bastia left them third in the table.

"Our fitness coach told us there might be a dip before we hit another peak in March," saidMonaco's Scottish international midfield player John Collins. "But we always get up for European matches." When they didn't last September, questions were asked. Amid the turmoil of rebuilding, with seven players departing, including Emmanuel Petit and Gilles Grimandi to Arsenal, and 12 arriving, they began the season poorly and were well beaten, 3-0, in their first Champions' League match in Lisbon, against Sporting.

"We had a big crisis meeting at the club," said Collins. "And after that we became more aggressive. In football you have got to win the duels and the tackles before you can play. And there is certainly the talent to play in this team." Too much, perhaps.

At first, Collins said, the coach Jean Tigana was trying to accommodate too many No 10s - "that position just behind the strikers that we have over here which you don't have so much in England, and we were getting overrun. Now we just play with one there, usually Benarbia, and we have a better balance".

Indeed Monaco went on to win their next four Champions' League games and fought back from 2-0 down in their last, against Bayer Leverkusen, to draw 2-2 and top their group.

In front of their captain Fabien Barthez, the French national goalkeeper, Monaco play with a back four, which includes what they call a stopper and a sweeper. The former has latterly been Martin Djetou - "a monster" according to Collins - who can also operate as a holding midfield player should they prefer the Bosnian Muhamed Konjic. The latter is Franck Dumas, "who starts everything for us". United may get some joy wide on the right should they pit David Beckham against the left-back Christophe Pignol.

In midfield, Monaco mostly play a diamond shape with Djetou or the Portuguese Francisco Da Costa as the holding player, Sylvain Legwinski on the right and Collins on the left. Chief among several who play just behind the strikers is the Algerian Ali Benarbia. "He's not a worker but give him the ball and he can kill teams over five yards or with a pass," Collins said.

It is in the front area that Monaco have an embarrassment of riches. The 20-year-old sensation of the season David Trezeguet - a sort of still enthusiastic Stan Collymore - who made his debut for France as a substitute against Spain in January, seems certain to start. But who will partner him?

The pounds 4.5m record signing from Lyon, Ludovic Giuly, is cup-tied and Japhet N'Doram is injured, as has been the Croatian Robert Spehar, another pounds 4m man. The choice would appear to be between the pacy Thierry Henry, scourge of Newcastle last season - who might be interesting the former Monaco coach Arsene Wenger at Arsenal - and the Nigerian Viktor Ikpeba.

"It's a fluid formation and it can change just like that," Collins said. "And because we have got so much pace up front, we can hit on the counter- attack. We'll have to be at our best to win as United are a great team but there's no fear here. It suits us to be underdogs."

The absence through injury of Ryan Giggs, who has appeared ready to seize the European stage over the past year, could be a significant factor but Collins believes that United's strength lies in a system and work ethic that survives the loss of individuals. "The formula is simple," he said. "Quality players who work. We will have to be ready for their pressing game. Very few teams do it in France. Here they sit back and let you come at them. Newcastle also pressed, played high tempo and got their tackles in early but we beat them on the break.

"I think United looked to Cantona too much in Europe. Sometimes he was marked very tightly but United still tried to play towards him. Now they don't play in a specific area of the park, they play all over it, and they have quite a few players with great movement who can score goals. I like watching them.

"It's a case of talented players with a good attitude. It's instilled in them from a young age and they know that if they don't work, they are out. An individual can be playing badly but he is still working for the team. The one person it's down to is the manager, and he's Scottish, isn't he? He makes that club."

Ferguson believes that United were defeated in Turin against Juventus in December because the game lacked edge, his team having already qualified for the last eight. Hence his words about the team needing the stimulus of fierce competition. Despite their laissez-faire environment, Monaco should provide it and, rather than Barnsley, Porto this time last year might be the better memory for United to recall.