Ferguson stares down uncertainty as Celtic remain philosophical

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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson left Celtic Park last night labouring under the misapprehension that Manchester United have guaranteed their qualification for the knockout stage of Champions League. "That's us qualified, so no complaints," said the Manchester United manager after Ryan Giggs' late goal had salvaged a 1-1 draw.

"It's not mathematical," ventured one brave soul. "We're qualified," Ferguson uttered with a stare that warned off further defiance, and then outlined how Celtic cannot overtake United now.

What Ferguson did not realise is that United might yet fail to make the last 16, albeit via a freakish set of results. For that to happen, AaB Aalborg and Villarreal would both have to beat United – the Danish minnows doing so at Old Trafford – and Aalborg would also have to beat Celtic. Improbable, certainly. But not mathematically impossible.

"We want to win the group," Ferguson said, sending a message to Celtic fans that United will do their utmost to help Gordon Strachan's team in their own quest to remain in this competition beyond Christmas. United would do Celtic a favour by beating Villarreal in Spain in the next round of matches, when a Celtic win at Aalborg could potentially set up a winner-takes-all match for them at home against the Spanish side in their last match.

"Whatever happens, happens," said Strachan, unwilling to spend a moment pondering the permutations in public. "I really don't care about that right now. That's for later. What matters is that we got out of here with pride, for sure, and that's what we wanted to get back."

Strachan admitted that, at 1-0 up and with the minutes ticking down, "I thought it was going to be one of those glorious nights." But he had nothing but praise for his injury-hit team. "After an hour I was just looking around to see who was the most tired to take off and there were 11 contenders," he said. "At least we made United work for their point."

Ferguson praised Scott McDonald's opener for Celtic as a goal of "fantastic skill and composure." He said: "I made the point the other day about [Shunsuke] Nakamura scoring a great goal to beat us two years ago. They've scored another great goal tonight... Obviously we deserved to get a point for our persistence but as the minutes go by you think you might lose it."

Ferguson heaped praise on the Celtic crowd, too. "You go to a lot of European games, in Italy for example, and they're not even full. Barcelona and Real Madrid have atmosphere, and Bayern Munich, but nothing beats that [tonight]. Their support is fantastic, it keeps them going, gave them energy to keep pressing the ball. Celtic were very industrious and not easy to break down."

Of a late chance by Dimitar Berbatov, Ferguson said: "I expected him to score." The miss will not be too costly, in all probability. But that's not a certainty.