Champions' League: United have destiny on their side

Sir Alex Ferguson believes the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster can inspire his side to European Cup glory
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The Independent Football

However much a football manager may win in even the most glittering career, there will always be those that got away; matches, cups, titles. Sir Alex Ferguson, though his personal honours list will end up longer than any other British manager's, regrets that Manchester United in his time have not won more than a single European Cup. It is high time for another.

United set off for Portugal this week to meet Sporting Lisbon in Wednesday's opening group match with the manager admitting that the 50th anniversary season of the Munich air disaster would be a perfect time to achieve it. "I think it would be without question an incentive in a way, but more than that it would be a great tribute from the present-day players to the players of the past," he said. "Because they won the cup in '68 and the Munich thing happened in '58. That was 50 years ago now and that's a long time, and it would be very fitting if we did it. Hopefully it gives an extra incentive and hopefully it will bring us some luck as well."

Alas, these things cannot be done to order. What could have been more fitting for a proud son of the Clydeside shipyards than to have led United to victory in the Glasgow final of 2002? Being drawn against the unfancied Bayer Leverkusen in the last four led some United supporters to book their hotels for the final. The football gods, however, do not approve of such presumption; Leverkusen went through on away goals after two draws.

There have been two other losing semi-finals in the Ferguson era. In 1997, two years before the epic triumph over Bayern Munich in Barcelona, there were home-and-away defeats to another German side, Borussia Dortmund, by a deflected goal in each leg. Then, as recently as last season, Milan lost 3-2 at Old Trafford but ran out easy 3-0 winners in the San Siro rain.

There could be no complaints that night, though Ferguson believes circumstances (as well as the sublime Kaka) were against his team. "We were unlucky in that the game came four days after the Everton match and we had to use the same players.[Cristiano] Ronaldo got an ankle injury at that time; he never really got his form back and Milan were much fresher and better prepared. There's no question they were the better team on the night. We didn't expect them to come at us like they did. The surface didn't help us either, the ball was flying about early on and it caught us on the hop. We needed 20 minutes to get into the game and were 2-0 down by that time."

Ronaldo, booked again in a poor individual performance that night and fortunate that suspensions are not carried over to the new season, will be available on Wednesday and should be raring to go after returning only yesterday from a domestic suspension. The same applies to Wayne Rooney and Owen Hargreaves, both ready again; in the latter's case to bring his considerable European experience to bear. "His knowledge of Europe was one of the reasons I thought he'd be a great signing for us,and I think he is," Ferguson said. "He's got the understanding of the game, particularly from a counterattack point of view because of his speed to get to things and stop the flow of opponents playing. He's so quick over the ground and he has that nous about the game."

Having been made top seeds in their group, like the other three English representatives, United ought certainly to reach the knockout stage, though Sporting, Roma and Dynamo Kiev will not be a pushover. As to possible winners of the competition, Ferguson suggests: "The usual suspects will all be there: the two Milan teams, Roma, Spanish teams, ourselves, the other English teams, who seem to be getting closer. Because of the improvement of the Premier League and the quality of players we are producing, we have a better chance of consistency in Europe now. That's evidenced by the recent record in finals and semi-finals. The English clubs will get to the later stages and one of us will possibly get to the final and even win it."

United's time again, then? "Of course you want to win it, but I can't demand that of myself and the players. Winning the European Cup is what we all want. But more important at this club, we want to win whatever we can."

This week's ties

Tuesday: Chelsea v Rosenborg

Struggling in Norway for once (after 13 successive league titles), Rosenborg are the lowest ranked of all 32 qualifiers and very much the lightweights of Group B. Steffen Iversen, back in London, will be keen to impress, but this ought to be a comfortable start for Chelsea.

Porto v Liverpool

Jose Mourinho's former club have lost key players during the summer, including Anderson to Manchester United, though they managed to hold on to talented winger Ricardo Quaresma. Rafa Benitez will need to come up with the right team as he mixes and matches his squad.

Shakhtar Donetsk v Celtic

The vastly experienced Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu has persuaded his employers to splash out a remarkable £13.5m on the Mexican midfielder Nery Castillo and some £5.5m onthe Italian international striker Cristiano Lucarelli. A point would satisfy Celtic.

Wednesday: Arsenal v Seville

Seville's Juande Ramos, courted by Tottenham, can take the opportunity for a good look round north London before putting his credentials on show against the area's other team. His Uefa Cup winners, including Frédéric Kanouté, should push Arsenal hard.

Rangers v Stuttgart

As the lowest seeds in a tough Group E, Rangers will at least not bear any great burden of expectation. Barcelona and Lyon await, so Stuttgart, who have made a poor start to the defence of their unexpected Bundesliga title, are the most likely sourceof points.

Sporting Lisbon v Man United

Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo will be keen to make an impression against their former club, although United may well not find room for both in an opening away game. The Portuguese pair will be in a minority in knowing much about their less than glamorous opponents.