Fergie v Strachan II: now it's the Battle for Europe

United will have to rethink plan to field a weakened side for Parkhead encounter
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The Independent Online

Stage management is a fine art which rarely prospers in football. That is something that Celtic and Manchester United will be reflecting upon over the next 16 days as they seek to repair the damage of a night when they got it all wrong.

Last Wednesday should have seen both British sides secure their passage into the last 16 of the Champions' League from Group F after impressive starts. If United had won in Copenhagen and Celtic in Lisbon, they would have claimed first and second place. Instead, their respective failures have ensured that the Battle of Britain in Glasgow on 21 November has become a Battle for Europe.

Benfica and FC Copenhagen are back in the mix. Each are seeking to profit from whatever transpires at Celtic Park. Will United and Celtic rue the day they allowed men who are long past their best to influence the occasions? In the former's case, it was Bruce Springsteen, in the latter's it was Celtic's European Cup heroes of 1967.

Sir Alex Ferguson had no doubts. It was The Boss who was to blame. Not Big Ron, but the veteran rock star whose concert on the Parken Stadium last Saturday ruined the turf. "It was a ridiculous pitch and they should not be allowed to play on it, it helps them," complained Ferguson on Friday.

So does leaving out six first-choice players. On that, however, Ferguson was remarkably muted. Strachan chose a different approach when asked if the presence of the Lisbon Lions - the first British team to win the European Cup made a pilgrimage to the city on the 40th anniversary of their triumph - had distracted his men. "It would be a weak man who tried to blame legendary figures like the Lisbon Lions," insisted Strachan after the 3-0 defeat against Benfica. However, the truth was that the bhoys of the summer of '67 distracted the Celtic supporters, if not the players. Earlier that day, half of the 10,000 fans turned up at the Estadio Nacional to see Billy McNeill and the other Lions revisit the place where they defeated Internazionale.

Strachan could not have expected that his team would be stripped of the vigour and adventure they showed just a fortnight earlier in thrashing Benfica by the same scoreline in Glasgow. The Celtic manager's analysis is being kept in-house, far from Fergie's ears.

"I really don't think we need to tell the world what we did wrong," reflected the Celtic manager on Friday. "I don't think we should give our competitors an insight into anything we do. It is a learning curve." Bertie Auld, one of Celtic's class of '67, was equally philosophical. "Celtic got caught up with the atmosphere," said Auld. "They are a very young team, but you cannot buy experience like that and they will be stronger for it."

The perceived wisdom was that United were going to tie up the group to allow Ferguson to field a weakened side against Celtic because of the impending Premiership encounter with Chelsea. Either he got his dates wrong, or his geography, but doing so against Copenhagen was costly. While Celtic's away record in the Champions' League is rightly criticised, with only one draw to show for their 11 journeys, United's is little better. Their win at Benfica in September was their only success in 11 road trips. A team who have failed to win in Lille or Copenhagen can scarcely be deemed favourites for the Battle of Britain at Fortress Parkhead, where Celtic have lost just once - to Barcelona - in 11 Champions' League games.

Benfica's manager, Fernando Santos, and Copenhagen's Stale Solbakken both believe British nerve will now be suspect. Kenny Miller, though, is displaying the composure that saw him kill off both teams when they came to Glasgow. "We are still two points ahead of Benfica and Copenhagen," said the Celtic striker. "It's in our hands to qualify - at least we don't have to rely on anybody else."

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