Final destiny as Ferguson seeks out a San Siro hero

Champions' League: United and Arsenal attempt to bolster confidence of fragile keepers as the acid test arrives
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The Independent Online

After the protracted, money-making group stage before Christmas, the Champions' League has returned to the classic knockout formula of the European Cup. An astonishing run of eight finalists in nine years (1977-85) under the old format indicated that the English, raised on the thrilling immediacy of cup football, were better at that than the newer version, in which Manchester United's 1999 triumph marked the only appearance to date by a Premiership team at the concluding stage.

After the protracted, money-making group stage before Christmas, the Champions' League has returned to the classic knockout formula of the European Cup. An astonishing run of eight finalists in nine years (1977-85) under the old format indicated that the English, raised on the thrilling immediacy of cup football, were better at that than the newer version, in which Manchester United's 1999 triumph marked the only appearance to date by a Premiership team at the concluding stage.

Yet judging from results in the first legs of the knockout section a fortnight ago, with three defeats in four games, the national representatives might have been carrying the flag not so much of St George as Ethelred the Unready.

With the demands of the domestic game undoubtedly heavier than in other countries, and (as Jose Mourinho has rightly complained) assistance from the national association less conspicuous, a shorter, sharper system should suit England's clubs.

But as Sir Alex Ferguson, better versed in these matters than anyone, put it on Friday: "When there was a second group section, it allowed you to get back into the flow of the Champions' League again, whereas with this sudden-death knockout, having not played in Europe for three months you are quickly back in among it again and you have to hit your form immediately."

His Manchester United side demonstrably failed to do that, and despite being in irresistible form against English opposition for some four months, found the might of Milan a different proposition. As a consequence, United, like the other members of the Premiership's big three, Chelsea and Arsenal, have a deficit to make up this week, all the worse in their case for needing to be retrieved on enemy territory. The welcome surprise is that Liverpool, least fancied of the home quartet, are the only ones in pole position, albeit a position weakened by Jerzy Dudek's late blunder in the 3-1 victory at Anfield over Bayer Leverkusen.

What might perplex the other contestants (of whom only Werder Bremen, beaten 3-0 at home by Lyon, can be ruled out of contention) is that the climax of the competition is apparently scheduled for the San Siro on Tuesday. "I think this is the final," Ferguson announced, before reluctantly softening that declaration a little: "It could be the final, I think that the team that wins this could win the Cup, I really do. I know there are some good teams there, particularly Barcelona [ouch, Jose!], but it is the mental toughness of both these teams, there is a great mental toughness between the two of them, and therefore whoever wins is going to be at a big advantage for the Cup."

For all that bravado, the great Scot is under no illusions about the the size of the task his team face after failing to threaten Milan's Nelson Dida at Old Trafford, while a howler by their own goalkeeper allowed Hernan Crespo to seize an invaluable lead. In assessing the level of difficulty as greater than that faced in overcoming Juventus in Turin six years ago, Ferguson defines it explicitly: "It was a great performance in Turin, the best performance of all time, easy. But this is above that game; they have such experience at the back in Maldini, Cafu, Nesta.

"If we can score then that can change the game, and that is obviously going to be our intention. I'm aware of the difficulty because I am trying to think of the last time they lost two goals at home. They don't lose many on their own ground. I watched their group game against Barcelona and Barça had possession all night but couldn't score. The issue will be, can we score? I just wish we hadn't let that goal in."

Roy Carroll paid for doing so with demotion in favour of Tim Howard, himself culpable on the occasion of Porto's last-minute winning goal at the same stage last season. So the American has the opportunity to cement a place for the rest of the current campaign. "We hope he can get his form back," Ferguson said. "He started the season as our goalkeeper and did very well, then started making one or two mistakes, and I always feel in that sort of situation, because they don't have the experience in our game, they are better off left out. The boy is ambitious enough and hungry enough. It is just like everything else, there is a lot of pressure and a lot of spotlight on the goalkeepers here simply because of us having had a goalkeeper like [Peter] Schmeichel, and there are always comparisons for every-one who comes here."

A couple of hundred miles south, Arsène Wenger was expressing a different sort of faith by naming Jens Lehmann as his goalkeeper five days in advance of Bayern Munich's arrival at Ars-enal with a 3-1 lead. Lehmann was at fault for Southampton's goal in a 1-1 draw last weekend, when photographs caught him with both feet on the ground as Peter Crouch, the "basketball player" (Wenger's description), headed in; he looked equally culpable for Bayern's third, a goal that would have ended the tie had Kolo Touré not partially redeemed himself and his team with an unexpected late score. "Hope from a no-hope situation," Wenger called it, suggesting of Bayern: "They got a mental blow, they came out of the game feeling they missed their chance. We had a horrendous defensive performance, panicked a bit. But there will be a much better performance [on Wednesday]. I'm convinced we can make it."

The manager is right that regardless of how either the Premiership table or next weekend's FA Cup quarter-final line-up look, it is too early to pass definitive judgement on any team's season; as he pointed out, winning the Champions' League would arguably make it his best. On the other hand, the wrong result against Bayern and then in Saturday's Cup game at Bolton - not a propitious venue for Arsenal - followed by a failure to catch Manchester United in the League, would constitute the worst of his nine campaigns at Highbury.

What he has had in common with Rafael Benitez at Liverpool is the loss of key players, making it, he claims "the biggest test in my time here, because the players who are out are all experienced and those who have come in are all very young". Similarly, losing a two-goal lead in Leverkusen, on the back of last weekend's Carling Cup final loss, and watching Everton disappear over the horizon into next season's Champions' League would condemn Benitez's first season to one of ultimate disappointment, whereas holding on, followed by a favourable quarter-final draw, offers very different possibilities.

For Mourinho, meanwhile, growing edgier despite all his protestations to the contrary in pursuit of a Treble chance, Barcelona's visit to west London takes on almost more significance than is healthy for a single match. Which makes Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night the most compelling of four fascinating assignations for English clubs this week.

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