Phil Jones admits early Champions League exit was bitter experience for Manchester United

United assured place in last-16 with game to spare

Phil Jones has admitted getting dumped out of the Champions League group stage last term was a bitter experience for Manchester United.

The Red Devils wrap up this term's group programme against Romanian side CFR Cluj at Old Trafford on Wednesday in the happy position of knowing their status as a seeded team for the last 16 draw later in the month is already assured.

It is a marked contrast to last term, when United lost their final game in Basle, despite Jones getting a late goal, and found themselves turfed into the Europa League.

As a newcomer to Old Trafford, Jones had not been part of the squad which had reached three of the previous four Champions League finals.

But he could tell from the devastation in the visitors' dressing room that night in Switzerland just what an impact it had.

"It was a bitter pill to swallow," said Jones.

"For a club of Manchester United's stature it was not an easy thing to deal with.

"This club is used to being in semi-finals and finals of the Champions and even winning it, so it was not a nice feeling to get knocked out of the Champions League the way we did."

Sir Alex Ferguson's response was to abandon his policy of resting key men for early group games and instead approach the tournament with added focus.

The response was just what the Scot wanted as his side reeled off four straight wins to secure their last-16 berth even before the trip to Galatasaray a fortnight ago.

"We've bounced back incredibly well this season," said Jones.

"The lads have played some terrific stuff in the Champions League games that I've seen.

"Hopefully we can kick on and go as far as we can."

By Wednesday night, United will know who they can get in the knock-out round draw in Nyon on December 20.

And already it appears the Red Devils are going to be facing a tough opponent, with Real Madrid, AC Milan, Juventus and Paris St Germain presently amongst the runners-up.

Not that Jones sees any point in looking too far ahead.

"There are no bad teams in the Champions League," said the former Blackburn man.

"It doesn't matter who you get it's always going to be a very difficult game, home and away.

"We are just looking forward to being in the knock-out stages and are relishing the challenge."

With the Manchester derby looming on Sunday, Ferguson has already vowed to make changes from the side whose defending so shocked the United boss at Reading on Sunday.

Skipper Nemanja Vidic is amongst those being pencilled in, whilst for Jones it will be an important staging post in his rehabilitation from knee surgery.

The youngster made his own comeback in that Galatasaray game which, in addition to putting his injury woes behind him, also provided Jones with some valuable experience that will help later in his career.

"I said after the game against Galatasaray that it was one of the best atmospheres I have ever played in," he said.

"It was a difficult game to come back into but it was great to be back in the fold."

PA

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