Perfect draw has Ferguson smiling

Bayern offer smooth path to third Champions League final in a row for United
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The Independent Football

It may be a tie resonant with history, but for the here and now it offers Manchester United the smoothest possible path towards a third successive Champions League final. A quarter-final against Bayern Munich, with the comfort of a home second leg, followed by a last four French test against Lyons or Bordeaux can only have sent Sir Alex Ferguson home yesterday with a smile on his face. Having spent the morning lambasting Liverpool, it was pretty much the perfect day for the United manager.

The first leg is in Munich in 10 days' time followed by the return on 7 April as the Germans embark on what they have branded "the three weeks of truth", or to translate into Old Trafford speak, "squeaky bum time". For both sides, each chasing a treble, it marks the pivotal stage of their campaigns. Bayern are involved in a three-horse race to win the Bundesliga. Louis van Gaal's side are two points clear of Schalke, whom they play on Wednesday in the German Cup before taking on them and third-placed Bayer Leverkusen either side of the second leg against United.

"If I had to bet on the winners of the Champions League, I would not bet on Bayern Munich," suggested Van Gaal, a view mirrored by Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.

"We are not one of the favourites," said Rummenigge, the club's general director. "We will have to reach our limits and even exceed them if we want to progress. Manchester are the favourites and that is where it is attractive in that we can trip up the favourite."

It was doing just that in a quarter-final against Bayern that first brought Ferguson to European notice 27 years ago, when his Aberdeen team surprised a side containing Rummenigge in the old Cup-Winners' Cup.

"The history of playing Bayern tells you it's going to be a very difficult tie," said Ferguson, a man who knows his history. United have only beaten them once – the 1999 Champions League final – although surprisingly, given both are stalwarts of the competition, they have not played each other since 2002.

Bayern may hold sway in a league that it is in rude health – the Bundesliga is threatening to snatch a Champions League place from Serie A – but Ferguson will be encouraged by their struggles in the Champions League. The Bavarians qualified for the knockout stages only thanks to a 4-1 victory over Juventus (a result perhaps put in perspective by Fulham's achievements) in their last game and were beaten twice by Bordeaux. In the last 16 they rode their luck to beat Fiorentina thanks to a controversial winner in the first leg and an Arjen Robben-inspired comeback from two goals down in Florence.

"In Robben and Ribéry they have two of the best wingers in world football," said Darren Fletcher, the United midfielder. Robben, revived since his time in Madrid, has assumed a lead role in a side that under Van Gaal puts the emphasis on attack. The Dutchman has scored 13 times this season to compensate for the frequent absence of Franck Ribéry, who has struggled with ankle and knee injuries.

Bastian Schweinsteiger, a key playmaker, is suspended for the first leg and Mario Gomez, their top scorer, is struggling to be fit. And for all their attacking verve, Bayern are error-prone at the back. Ferguson will unleash Wayne Rooney at a defence centred on Daniel van Buyten and Martin Demichelis with relish.