Champions' League: 'It will be different this time, I assure you,' says Ferguson

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The Independent Football

Though Liverpool might have a case for disputing the statement, no two names evoke the more glorious days of British clubs in Europe with quite the sense of romance that has linked Manchester United and Celtic since one followed the other in claiming the ultimate club prize almost four decades ago.

The victory of Jock Stein's Lisbon Lions over Internazionale in the European Cup final of 1967 preceded United's defeat of Benfica at Wembley by 12 months, breaking the early dominance of Real Madrid. A subsequent record of one final appearance each - Celtic in defeat in 1970, United in triumph in 1999 - has scarcely diminished the reverence the British pair acquired on those monumental nights.

The debate over who were the greater team helped develop a bond that has been reinforced through testimonial games, the latest of which honoured Roy Keane last May. Yet when Celtic return to Old Trafford on Wednesday, in the group stage of the Champions' League, it will be their first competitive encounter.

No debate will be settled now. Scottish football has declined too much for 40-year-old comparisons to be relevant. Yet the United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, a man in whose veins the blue blood of Rangers flows and whose opinion of the current Celtic manager used to turn the air a similar colour, demands that history be respected, and insists that while United and Benfica are favourites to progress from Group F, the chances of the Scottish champions should not be dismissed.

"You cannot underestimate a team when there is a bit of history and resources behind them," he said. "They have a chance of qualifying, there is no question of that."

He has less to say about Gordon Strachan than about the former United player's predecessor at Celtic Park, Martin O'Neill. "They have got fantastic resources to make a challenge and they only need to look at what Martin O'Neill achieved to know what can be done. Two or three years ago they got to the Uefa Cup final, beating Blackburn and Liverpool on the way. That was a phenomenal performance. In football, anything is possible. Who'd have thought last year that United would not have qualified [for the knockout stages], not even for the Uefa Cup?"

That Ferguson should empha-sise his point by recalling United's experience last season, when they began as group favourites yet finished bottom, winning only one match and scoring only three goals, is indicative of the depth of hurt felt at seeing another chance to revisit the pinnacle of 1999 slip away. This year, he says, there will be no repeat.

"I'd never have believed at the start of last season's campaign that we would finish bottom," he said. "Villarreal were a good side but Benfica had been struggling. Yet we never scored against Lille or Villarreal in four games.

"The dividing line was that we did not score enough goals. If we had scored one more, giving us one better result, we would have gone through. Injuries meant that at times we had a team that lacked experience, but it was a big disappointment none the less. It will be different this time, I can assure you."

United's frustrating summer in the transfer market, when their record European goalscorer, Ruud van Nistelrooy, left and the talented but unproven Michael Carrick was the only major arrival, might lead some to greet such confidence with scepticism. But Ferguson believes the benefits of another year's experience in the legs of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, plus the return to fitness of Paul Scholes, will be significant.

The last-named pair will be available after completing their suspensions. "I might even pick them," Ferguson joked, adding, more seriously, that "the 10 to 12 goals we can expect from Paul was a big loss last year". Injuries remain an issue, with Gabriel Heinze, Nemanja Vidic and Alan Smith not fit to return. Yet United will expect to have the edge at home against Strachan's team, even though the signings of Thomas Gravesen and Jan Vennegor of Hasselink make them better equipped. The match in Glasgow in November, where nationalistic fervour and Ferguson's connections with the other half of the Old Firm will be a bigger factor, might be a different proposition. "I don't care if they boo me, but we will have to avoid being caught up in the emotion," he warned.

Whether Ferguson can deliver a first major return to the Glazer family on their £800 million purchase of United remains to be seen. He does believe, however, that one of the English quartet can emerge as champions.

"Chelsea's signings look more orientated towards European football," he said. "They have brought in more big-name players, as have Liverpool, and Arsenal surprised everyone by reaching the final last year. English football is getting stronger and there is no doubt that one of the four of us can win."

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