Sir Alex Ferguson arrived in Glasgow last night to praise Celtic, not bury them. And while Manchester United's fans probably believe that that formality can wait until this evening's Battle of Britain Champions' League match at Parkhead, Ferguson himself said that he would be taking no chances with his team selection.
United need just one point to qualify for the knock-out stages, while Celtic will want the same as a minimum requirement to keep alive their hopes of making that phase for the first time.
"There will be no more than two changes [from the full-strength XI which beat Sheffield United at the weekend]," Ferguson said. "The name of the game is to win. Against Copenhagen [in their last Group F game, which United lost], we left three players at home and Paul Scholes on the bench. We're aware of taking too many chances. We want to leave Glasgow with top of the group assured."
So forget the fact that this evening's contest is the biggest match of Gordon Strachan's Celtic managerial career but not even the most important of Ferguson's week. (There is the small matter of Chelsea's visit to Old Trafford on Sunday to consider.) And forget that on man-to-man match-ups, there are some glaring differences in individual quality. Paul Telfer versus Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney versus Bobo Balde spring most obviously to mind. United's "A team" can be expected, and the only issue is which two men, at most, will drop to the bench.
Quite possibly Patrice Evra will be one, replaced by Gabriel Heinze, while there is an argument that Cristiano Ronaldo could be also rested in favour of Darren Fletcher, a boyhood Celtic fan. But the permutations increased last night when Ferguson revealed his increasing concerns about the health of Gary Neville. The 31-year-old United captain has a chronic calf problem that is not preventing him playing for the moment but that Ferguson fears may need surgery soon. Fluid accumulation previously only found in his right leg has now started to appear in his left.
"He trained this morning but obviously, the injury has been a concern," Ferguson said. "We are holding our breath hoping it doesn't happen again because if it does we will have to do something about it." Ferguson's options at right-back include Wes Brown or John O'Shea but the manager is reluctant to call them into action unless absolutely necessary. "Gary is our captain," he said. "He has the experience and we want him in our team all the time."
Ferguson is under no illusions that a packed Parkhead, where Celtic have lost only one of 11 previous Champions' League group games, will provide easy pickings. Barcelona, two years ago, are the only team to have left with three points, and Celtic have already beaten Copenhagen and Benfica this season.
"Celtic Park is without question one of the best atmospheres anyone could experience and their players can be inspired by it," Fergsuon said. "If the game is going Celtic's way, you have your work cut out to stem the tide of emotion and enthusiasm that can be generated by that support - we are in for a tough game."
At no stage in a press conference staged last night at United's base on the Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond did Ferguson suggest any divine right for his side to take the high road to the next phase. Nor, given his sometimes acrimonious relationship with Strachan, were there any mind games. The closest he came was when asked how Balde - a likely replacement for Gary Caldwell at centre-half - might fare, not having played much this season. "He's a big lad and maybe later in the game he'll feel the lack of matches," Ferguson said.
Rather it was Strachan who dabbled in psychology, pointing out that United had recently been beaten by Southend, and crashed out of last season's Champions' League at the group stage. His Scottish international striker, Kenny Miller, added: "It has been shown that they can be beaten. They are a good team, don't get me wrong, but we can beat them." Both managers would settle for a point, but do not expect either side to play like it.
Celtic (4-4-2): Boruc: Telfer, Balde, McManus, Naylor; Nakamura, Lennon, Gravesen, Maloney; Vennegoor of Hesselink, Miller.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Heinze; Fletcher, Carrick, Scholes, Giggs; Rooney, Saha.
Referee: M Gonzalez (Spain).
Tale of two clubs Celtic and Manchester United old boys
* BRIAN McCLAIR
Striker, who left Celtic for Manchester United in 1987 for £850,000. Now United's Youth Academy director.
* DION DUBLIN
Joined United in 1992 but played only 12 games in two years. After spells at Coventry, Aston Villa, Millwall and Leicester, signed for Celtic last January. Now with Norwich.
* PAT CRERAND
Joined United from Celtic in 1963, and was a crucial part of the European Cup-winning side in 1968.
* LOU MACARI
Won two league titles with Celtic before moving to United in 1973 for £200,000. Macari (left) now works as a pundit for MUTV and Sky Sports as well as owning the "Lou Macari Chip Shop" on Sir Matt Busby Way.
* LIAM MILLER
Signed by United as a long-term replacement for Roy Keane in 2004 but failed to live up to the billing and was loaned out to Leeds. Now at Sunderland.
* ROY KEANE
Signed for United in 1993 from Nottingham Forest and became the club's captain and talisman. Left the club in November 2005 and went on to play half a season for Celtic. Now manager at Sunderland.Reuse content