Football: United the Real threat in Europe

Simon Turnbull looks at the rivals to Old Trafford glory as the draw beckons
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The Independent Online
After the phoney war of Turin, with qualification already assured, the real thing is beckoning Manchester United as the continent's foremost club competition casts off its league cloak and gets down to the business of knockout cup action. Jupp Heynckes, for one, is hoping the champions of England will not be confronted by the Real thing when the quarter-final draw takes place in Geneva next Wednesday. It is a measure of the esteem in which Alex Ferguson's side are now held that United happen to be the club the rest of Europe's elite are most anxious to avoid.

Asked to pick out the most likely threat to his Real Madrid team, Heynckes did not hesitate. "Manchester United," the German coach at the Bernabeu replied. "They have dominated their group in the European Cup; I can't bring myself to call it the Champions' League. And, what is more important, at the same time they have done very well, against a lot of very hard teams, in the English Premiership. Other clubs have not done so well in their own leagues. It has taken us some time to find our form because at Real the European Cup is an obsession. It's a great strain on the club."

Heynckes has made a good job of taking that strain since his appointment in the summer as successor to Fabio Capello. Real have been almost as impressive as United in reaching the last eight. They have scored one more goal (15), conceded one fewer (four) and, like the men from Old Trafford, suffered just one defeat (2-0 to Rosenborg in Trondheim). They also boast a star-studded squad, featuring such sparkling talents as Davor Suker, who scored twice in the 4-0 win over Porto on Wednesday, Raul and Clarence Seedorf.

Expectations are high in the Spanish capital that 1998 will be the year in which the European Cup finally returns to what those connected with the Bernabeu consider to be its rightful home. Thirty-one years have passed since Real's sixth and last success, when Francisco Gento lifted the trophy after a 2-1 victory against Partizan Belgrade in the Heysel Stadium. They reached the semi-finals two years later, in 1968, when Bill Foulkes (a veteran of the Manchester United team thwarted at the same stage by Di Stefano and Co in 1957) inspired the fightback from 3-1 down in Madrid to clinch a 3-3 draw and a 4-3 aggregate passage to the Wembley final for Matt Busby's glory boys.

Heynckes has been a finalist himself. He wore the No 11 shirt in the Borussia Monchengladbach team beaten 3-1 by Liverpool in 1977. Heynckes, though, is not the only German who might stand between United and the semi-finals. Of the six clubs they could face at the next hurdle (another meeting with Juventus will be averted), only Real, Monaco and Dynamo Kiev are from outside the Bundesliga.

Ferguson knows all about Borussia Dortmund, the defending champions having beaten his team 1-0 home and away in last season's semi-finals. United have, rather surprisingly, never crossed competitive paths with Bayern Munich, the reigning German champions. They have also yet to meet Bayer Leverkusen, the only team left in the Champions' Cup who are not champions either of their own league or of Europe. Leverkusen, in fact, have never won the Bundesliga.

They do, however, have a prized Brazilian playmaker by the name of Emerson. And Christoph Daum's midfield also includes Stefan Beinlich, once of Aston Villa. The Red Devils, no doubt, would be rather happy to be given a March date with a one-time Villan.