Barcelona the threat, says Ferguson

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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson's admiration of Barcelona has been a useful tool in his mind games against other clubs in recent years and he insists that they – and not Liverpool – represent the greatest threat to his team's hopes of retaining the Champions League.

Barcelona, who Manchester United narrowly disposed of in last season's semi-final, will meet Liverpool in this year's semis if the two sides prevail in the quarter- finals and they, Ferguson claimed, are Europe's "form team". "They have been terrific this season," he said. "Their first-half performance against Lyons in the second leg of the first knock-out round [which they won 5-2 at the Nou Camp] was absolutely brilliant – they were four up in no time. We have to recognise that our threats don't just come from England, the big one will come from Barcelona."

A hammering of the French champions, whom United disposed of at the same stage as Barcelona last season, pales by comparison with Liverpool's 5-0 aggregate win over Real Madrid and there is little doubt for most of a neutral disposition that Rafael Benitez's side has been the most dynamic continental side of the past month. That win demonstrated the same offensive prowess developed under Frank Rijkaard which saw Barcelona to Champions League success in 2006, but Ferguson suggested it was the new-found defensive solidity which has taken them to a new level.

"I'm not sure they have improved a lot from when we played them last season but they have had a better defensive record since Guardiola took over as coach last year," the United manager told Inside United magazine.

"There has maybe been a bit more concentration on defending than there had been in previous times. That's not a criticism of Frank Rijkaard, I just think Guardiola has brought in the awareness that defending is just as important as attacking."

* Gary Neville lasted almost an hour of last night's reserve-team draw with Newcastle at St James' Park. Neville has been out for two months with a groin injury but he could now come into contention for next Sunday's Premier League game with Aston Villa.