After 21 years at the Old Trafford helm, longevity no longer matters so much to Sir Alex Ferguson. Surpassing the 24 successive years Sir Matt Busby served after the Second World War, the Manchester United manager revealed yesterday, is not in his thoughts.
But there is a sense, as he begins his 22nd year at United by preparing his side to face Dynamo Kiev tonight in a match which could wrap up their place in the Champions League second round, that the 67-year-old is still striving for something which might sit alongside the European legacy Busby bequeathed this club when he made it the first English side to play in Europe. A third European Cup, for instance.
Ferguson's quest for the Busby type of greatness was tangible as he contemplated securing the win which would allow United to clear away European business until February and focus on their Premier League quest. "There's an impact [from] Sir Matt's reign [when] I think back to what he actually started after the war in terms of vision," said Ferguson, describing the now legendary way his predecessor persuaded United to compete for the European Cup in 1956. "Of course, Chelsea had won the league that year but they didn't fancy it. The FA didn't fancy it and the Football League didn't fancy it, but Sir Matt Busby did."
The decision to take the side to the Continent was a fateful one, of course. Munich came only two years after the start of the club's big adventure and there is an acute awareness at Old Trafford of what a third triumph in the 50th anniversary year would mean. But Ferguson also feels parallels. He believes he is taking his side into a new era just as Busby did. So can 2008 be added to 1968 and 1999? "At this moment in time I'm very positive about that," he said. "I'm in business for everything."
But first things first. United started last year's campaign like this one, with three straight wins, but defeats to FC Copenhagen and Celtic took their first group campaign to the wire. Defeat at home to Dynamo Kiev is even more improbable. Owen Hargreaves claimed, with some justification, yesterday that this once great club were "afraid" of United in the Ukraine a fortnight ago and the gloom surrounding their prospects did not lift when their manager, Jozsef Szabo, was taken to hospital with a heart complaint after their 4-2 capitulation was followed by another domestic defeat.
Szabo has been temporarily replaced by the former Arsenal defender Oleh Luzhny – Kiev's third manager of this European campaign – who sounded gloomy yesterday. "I have only had two or three days to prepare for this game and it is just not enough time," Luzhny said.
His side's chances are not being helped by uncertainty surrounding the fitness of the former Tottenham and West Ham striker Sergei Rebrov, who missed the first meeting between the sides with a knee injury and is not certain to a play a part tonight despite travelling to Manchester. The absence of Dynamo's top scorer Maksim Shatskikh threatens to curtail further the visitors' already limited attacking options.
Ferguson had bad news of his own yesterday. The recovery of Gary Neville has been set back by a minor calf muscle pull, sustained in training on Sunday. "It's disturbing for the fact that he needs to get his season on the road," said Ferguson.
With virtually a full squad to choose from, Ferguson seems likely to recall Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick in midfield at the expense of Anderson and Ryan Giggs. Louis Saha – a player Sir Alex feels can consistently change a game – is likely to be on the bench.
The Premier League was also on Sir Alex's mind yesterday. He did not elaborate on the assertions he made in United's in-house magazine that a quota on foreign players should be imposed, which was seen as a thinly veiled strike at Arsenal. But the threat Arsène Wenger's side – rather than Chelsea – represent to him was again unmistakable. "Last year the challenge was Chelsea. This year it's Arsenal," he said.
The United manager describes in tonight's programme notes his belief that the maturity which is finally embellishing his players' ability has meant that talk of European glory is no longer just "whistling in the dark".
But though success is there for taking, the consequences of failure in Europe are crystal clear, Ferguson reminded his players. "If you are one of the best you naturally look to spell it out with cups and medals, otherwise you are in danger of ending your career as a nearly man," he said.
And that is why, even after 21 years, he still cannot contemplate defeat.
Manchester United (4-1-3-2): Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, O'Shea; Hargreaves; Ronaldo, Carrick, Fletcher; Tevez, Rooney.
Dynamo Kiev (4-5-1): Shovkovskiy; Dopilka, Nesmachniy, Gavrancic, Nesmachniy; Gusev, Ghioane, Rincon, Yussuf, Rebrov; Bangoura.
Champions League Group F
Results: Roma 2 Dynamo Kiev 0; Sporting Lisbon 0 Manchester Utd 1; Dynamo Kiev 1 Sporting Lisbon 2; Manchester Utd 1 Roma 0; Dynamo Kiev 2 Manchester Utd 4; Roma 2 Sporting Lisbon 1.
Remaining fixtures: Today: Manchester Utd v Dynamo Kiev; Sporting Lisbon v Roma. 27 Nov: Dynamo Kiev v Roma; Manchester Utd v Sporting Lisbon. 12 Dec: Roma v Manchester Utd; Sporting Lisbon v Dynamo Kiev.Reuse content