It comes to something when a team visiting Bayern Munich are guarding against complacency, but that will be the reality when Manchester United face the four-times European Cup winners in the Allianz Arena tonight. Bayern could be without four leading players for the first leg of this Champions League quarter-final and one of Sir Alex Ferguson's main concerns is ensuring his team do not underestimate them.
Ferguson said his team were playing their best football of the season following the return of Rio Ferdinand, Edwin van der Sar and Nemanja Vidic. "There's a true saying, 'strong at the back, strong as a team'," he said. "We looked fragile earlier this season, but we are looking very strong now."
But he added: "We must not get carried away and think for a moment this could be an easy game. This game is a difficult task, they have a lot of good players and a great coach. We have to be aware of that."
Four of those "good players" are unlikely to start: Arjen Robben, Franck Ribéry and Mario Gomez due to injury and Bastian Schweinsteiger because of suspension. That still leaves Miroslav Klose and Mark van Bommel to be wary of, but there could be a lot of unfamiliar names in Louis van Gaal's side tonight, so much so he is likely to rush back Argentine centre-half Martin Demichelis for his first match since Michael Ballack broke his jaw in last month's international friendly.
Van Gaal conceded United were favourites, but insisted that it was the Premier League leaders who should "be scared". "We can surprise every team. Bayern are not yet a top- level team like Manchester but we can achieve that level for a game," the Dutchman said. Focusing on Wayne Rooney he added: "He is a super player. When he was younger I wondered if he had vision in his game. He has developed that now and is very hard to mark out of the game, but we can manage because we also have quality. Ferguson and his players should be scared of that. I never have fear and my players don't have any fear either."
Ferguson dismissed the "favourites" tag. "He's a clever man," he said of Van Gaal, an assessment the latter would surely agree with. But it was hard not to suspect Ferguson was talking Bayern up when he said: "They have had one or two bad results recently, but that does not mean they are a bad team. Teams with history have a certain pride, we have to contend with that tomorrow."
Bayern have lost their last two matches, enabling Schalke to usurp them as Bundesliga leaders; more significantly they may also have lost Robben on Saturday, to a calf strain. The Dutch winger, who turned down Ferguson for Chelsea some years ago, has been in superb form this season but Van Gaal said: "We need a player like Robben, but if he is not 100 per cent fit he will not play."
An ankle injury means Ribéry – a Ferguson target last summer until Bayern priced him at £70m – is likely to be on the bench alongside £30m striker Gomez (calf). By contrast Ferguson confirmed that Rooney and Rio Ferdinand, both rested on Saturday, were fit. Not that Ferguson, always suspicious of opponents, was taking Bayern's injury list as gospel. The Scot said he would plan to face Bayern's best XI, and adapt if Robben and/or Ribéry did not figure. That suggested the adaptable Giggs may get the nod ahead of Nani, allowing Park Ji-sung to switch from his new central position to a marking role if either of Bayern's wingers played.
Ferguson stressed the need to get an away goal, dipping into the memory banks to recall his first visit to Bavaria, with Aberdeen 27 years ago. "We drew 0-0 and everyone was delighted apart from me. I sensed danger. We managed to go through, but Bayern scored twice at Pittodrie."
As well as underlining how long Ferguson has been operating at this level the recollection showed how much game has changed. The days when a provincial club from a small TV market like Scotland could compete with the likes of Bayern are long gone. Van Gaal, thinking perhaps of the Ajax team he won the Champions League with 15 years ago which was then broken up by predators, called for "a salary cap on the American model so everybody would be playing with the same budgets. With all the conditions the same, then we could really play." It is a nice idea, but in practice devilishly difficult to impose.
But for injuries tonight would, however, be a meeting of equals – Bayern, said Van Gaal, are the fifth-richest club in Europe. Instead United can put the tie to bed, just as long as they do not assume they will.