Football: United the main event in Monaco

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FOOTBALL is played in many places, but even Manchester United's much- travelled players can have been to few like the location which hosts their return to Europe. There may be docks and roadworks nearby, but little else surrounding the Stade Louis II to remind them of the Salford industrial estate they call home.

While Old Trafford dominates the west Manchester skyline, Monaco's ground, carefully landscaped to blend in with the tiled-roofed luxury apartments of grand prix drivers and retired financiers, is barely visible from the Grimaldi palace above.

Tonight, however, the eyes of the world, if not the Principality, will be on the elegant stadium. Television crews from the United States to Japan are here to see if this quarter-final first leg will find Alex Ferguson's side taking another step in their quest to emulate Sir Matt Busby's Champions' Cup winners of 30 winters ago.

Twice as many media attended Ferguson's press conference as that of Jean Tigana, the Monaco coach. In response, Ferguson was cool and reserved, Tigana all toothy smiles and giggles. Was the United manager feeling the pressure while his opponent relaxed? No. When the television cameras and tape recorders were switched off, so was the professional mask. Ferguson, having been careful not to give anything away nor to indicate either fear or over-confidence, now cracked jokes with English and French alike.

Tigana's demeanour, however, was indicative of the lesser expectation on the hosts. Football is a sideshow here and the biggest demands on them are from within; United carry the hopes of half a nation and the burden of history.

"The European games are special," Gary Neville said. "All the great sides have won the European Cup and that is the standard we want to set ourselves. It is important to win the trophy."

United are likely to go into the match with the team that finished Saturday's victory over Chelsea, Henning Berg and Phil Neville continuing to deputise for Gary Pallister - who is out for another seven to 10 days - and Ryan Giggs. Monaco have injury doubts over several players including John Collins of Scotland, but the serious concern is David Trezeguet. The new French cap has a knee injury and is likely to be replaced by Thierry Henry. A more than useful deputy, he is the tournament's top scorer.

Monaco are billed as a counter-attacking team, but they are not just sprinters. Twice in the Champions' League stage they came back from 2- 0 down, notably beating Sporting Lisbon 3-2 when the Portuguese side were defending in depth. The goalkeeper, Fabien Barthez, is the French No 1, Franck Dumas and Martin Djetou provide a strong defensive core, the midfield is well-balanced and hard-working. Algeria's Ali Benarbia is the link with Nigeria's Victor Ikpeba, the current African player of the year, and Henry or Trezeguet.

United have plenty of threat themselves despite the loss of Giggs, their most potent attacking weapon. "Who is their pivotal player?" Tigana was asked. "This is the problem, there is not just one," he said.

The former French international midfielder, who yesterday ended speculation about his future by extending his contract by two years, was gushing about United, but Ferguson said dismissively: "They all build us up. It's just talk," before heaping his own praise on Monaco, who he described as "the toughest draw we could have had" and "they are very good defensively."

Both managers stressed it will be a night for discipline and concentration from their youthful teams. United, with only three bookings in the tournament (by far the best record) have Paul Scholes and Berg on yellow cards. Monaco could have eight players just one caution away from missing the second leg.

The referee, Manuel Diaz Vega, was excellent in United's win away to Fenerbahce last season, but Stuart Pearce was less enamoured by the handball he gave in England's match against Switzerland in Euro 96.

United supporters are here in numbers, although not many are thought to have arrived on the many English-registered yachts in the marinas - football gentrification has not gone that far. The fans are expected to occupy a third of the 15,000-seat ground, but many will still be left ticketless.

To reduce the risk of their swish boulevards being despoiled by excluded fans, Monaco are relaying the game on a big screen outside. A bright idea on the night, but a dangerous precedent in that it encourages fans to travel without tickets to future games.

Inside, there remains concern over the pitch which, despite being better than usual, is still very bobbly. Built over a car park with just eight inches of soil, it is usually a quagmire in winter and hard-baked in summer. A Monaco official admitted it is often a "champ des pommes de terre". It looked green as United trained last night, but this evening they hope to make hay.

Monaco (probable): Barthez; Dumas; Sagnol, Konjic, Leonard; Legwinski, Djetou, Collins; Benarbia; Ikpeba, Trezeguet or Henry.

Manchester United (probable): Schmeichel; G Neville, Johnsen, Berg, Irwin; Beckham, Scholes, Butt, P Neville; Cole, Sheringham.

Referee: M Diaz Vega (Spain).