Ferguson opens up to share hopes for United’s ‘driven’ generation

Click to follow
The Independent Online

He may very well employ two thirty-somethings in Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov tonight but Sir Alex Ferguson was thinking far beyond Basle. The key to what would be the club's fourth European Cup are the boys who have begun Manchester United's Premier League season at such a punishing pace.

He was asked in front of the usual bouquet of microphones if this was a golden age for Manchester United in European football. The obvious answer was yes. Since slinking away from Lisbon bottom of their group in December 2005, United have only once failed to reach a semi-final – and that was when a 3-0 lead was squandered against Bayern Munich.

Ferguson said that since they had lost two European Cup finals to Barcelona, the answer was no. Earlier, in a fascinating, wide-ranging interview with the BBC, Ferguson said he had been planning Manchester United's response to the Catalans for more than two years, something he could do "because nobody is thinking about sacking Alex Ferguson".

"There was an issue on how we could get near to Barcelona after the final in Rome two years ago," he said. "When you build a team, you want one that lasts five or six years so you get a consistent nature about them and they become friends together. I have a nucleus of young players around the 20-21 year mark who can be regarded in the same way as the Giggs-Scholes-Neville-Beckham era.

"I like to see my own character in the players. I like obsessive, driven footballers that do not like losing. The length of time I have been here has meant that it's been instilled. It becomes a normal situation when players come in and say they had better be like the rest or they won't be at the club too long. It is driven by me but there is an acceptance by the players that they will have to have these qualities to be successful."

Should Manchester United reach the final in Munich in May, Ferguson will be 70, although he said it was not an anniversary he would fear. "It is like when I was 60 or 65. It never bothered me," he said. "I have mellowed as I have got older and I switch off quite quickly now. I still hate losing and I don't like people to change – I think you should stick by your nature. But I never go back; tomorrow is another day."

Ferguson may believe that in dealing with television, you have to "shake hands with the devil'. However, should you wish to play for the Red Devils, there is a similar bargain to be made. It was put very succinctly by Owen after his two goals overcame Leeds in the Carling Cup last week. "What harms your chance of a place is that we are all so bloody good. The strikers here are fabulous."

The choice for any centre-forward who is not Wayne Rooney or Javier Hernandez is very straightforward at Old Trafford. You can leave and earn a starring role in amateur dramatics or you can have a bit part at the National Theatre.

Unlike Owen, who came on a free transfer when Hull seemed his likeliest suitors, Dimitar Berbatov did not join Manchester United to be in the chorus line. He cost £30m and, despite finding the net only twice since the end of January, he was the Premier League's joint top scorer last season.

Yet, he was not deemed worthy of a place in the squad for the European Cup final at Wembley and was ignored when Ferguson came to select his side to face Benfica in Lisbon, which on the surface is Manchester United's trickiest match in a straightforward group. Now, with Rooney and Hernandez unavailable through injury, there is an opportunity to snatch as Owen did at Elland Road.

Ferguson said that he takes defeat rather better than in the days when his wife could tell with a single glance what Aberdeen or Manchester United's result had been. But winning is still everything. His counterpart at Basle, Thorsten Fink, should be familiar with Ferguson's sentiments that were never more clearly distilled than the last time he faced United in the 1999 European Cup final that Bayern dominated and lost.

United are likely to be without three central defenders tonight because of injuries to Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Nemanja Vidic, whom Ferguson hoped to see returning as captain after next month's international break.

Nevertheless, when faced with similar circumstances in December 2009, Wolfsburg, who were then German champions, were unable to break through a thoroughly makeshift defence composed of Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher in their own stadium. Owen will remember the game as one where he scored his second Champions League hat-trick. It is for moments like these for which he and, increasingly, Berbatov, now exist.

Group C details

* Results so far Basle 2-1 Otelul Galati, Benfica 1-1 Manchester United.

* Remaining fixtures: Today Manchester United v Basle, Otelul Galati v Benfica. 18 Oct Otelul Galati v Manchester United, Basle v Benfica.

2 Nov Man United v Otelul Galati, Benfica v Basle. 22 Nov Otelul Galati v Basle, Man United v Benfica. 7 Dec Basle v Man United, Benfica v Otelul Galati.

Swiss stroll? it should be, even with eight out

Manchester United's injuries

United will be without many first-teamers, particularly in defence, tonight:

* Injured defenders

Jonny Evans (ankle)

Chris Smalling (groin)

Nemanja Vidic (calf)

Rafael (shoulder)

* Injured midfielders

Tom Cleverley (foot)

Darron Gibson (ankle)

* Injured forwards

Wayne Rooney (hamstring)

Javier Hernandez (dead leg)

Basle in England

United will be buoyed by Basle's poor record in England:

1 Oct 2010: lost 1-0 at Fulham

2 Nov 2006: lost 3-0 at Blackburn Rovers

6 April 2006: lost 4-1 at Middlesbrough 27 Nov 2003: lost 1-0 at Newcastle United

12 March 2003: drew 1-1 at Manchester United

25 Sept 2002: drew 1-1 with Liverpool

7 Aug 2001: drew 1-1 with Aston Villa

United imperious at Old Trafford

United have an exceptional home record in the Champions League. Since their 1-0 defeat by Milan in the last 16 in 2005, they have lost just one of their last 32 home Champions League games.

* That defeat was to Besiktas in 2009, when United had already qualified.

* Since that game they have won six and drawn two, including last 16, quarter-final and semi-final wins last year.

* Since 2005, they have beaten Milan, Roma, Barcelona, Inter, Arsenal, Valencia and Chelsea at Old Trafford.

Three key confrontations: where tonight's match will be won or lost

Michael Carrick v Alexander Frei

United's defensive midfielder has not always had the best of times slotting in to the defence and could come up against a tricky opponent in Alexander Frei. The veteran Swiss forward, who has scored goals in spells in Germany and France, was the top scorer in the Swiss league last season with 27 goals and could prove a real threat to a make-shift central defender.

Ashley Young v Markus Steinhofer

Young has made a sensational start to his career at United and will give the fiercest possible examination of German midfielder Markus Steinhofer. The 25-year-old will be playing in only his second ever Champions League tie and could have a difficult evening against the electric Young.

Patrice Evra v Fabian Frei

The veteran United left-back will be one of the most experienced outfield players in tonight's game, and has seen off many bright young midfielders over the years. Right-winger Fabian Frei had made his way up through the ranks at Basle and will be looking to add to his goal tally, having scored against Otelul Galati.