United still hungry for win in hunt for top spot

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The Independent Football

Old Trafford was a world away from the Reebok Stadium as Sir Alex Ferguson, whom the Football Association yesterday charged with "using abusive and insulting words towards an official" after his words with referee Mark Clattenburg at the weekend, assumed a sartorially relaxed look as he prepared for tonight's Champions League meeting with Sporting Lisbon.

But while the blue sweater provided a sense of contentment with a job already done (qualification clinched three weeks ago) the United manager has good reasons for wanting victory. A win over Sporting will confirm their progression as group winners and, in turn, take the pressure off the team for their final game in Rome which comes four days before United's crucial league tie at Anfield.

The United manager was careful to declare there is a sense of honour in keeping Group F competitive for both Sporting and Roma by fielding strong sides in the remaining matches, but he did not pretend that the thought of preparing for Liverpool while free of any Italian considerations had crossed his mind.

"It would help [to have won the group]," he said. That is why Sir Alex is likely to restore Cristiano Ronaldo – a player whom he has already compared to Stanley Matthews this season and whom he will say in tonight's programme notes, puts him in mind of "Denis Law in his pomp".

There is no disguising Sir Alex's continuing reflections on just how good this squad really is. His assertion, in programme notes two weeks ago, that it was the best-ever raised some eyebrows and he will be gnawing away at the subject again in his programme notes tonight.

Suggestions that the current team are greater than the 1992-3 and 1993-4 sides that brought the title back to Old Trafford are premature, he says. But the "pool of players goes very deep" he insists and continuing "the winning thread", as he calls it, even when United's qualification for the next round of European competition is guaranteed, is part of his judgement of greatness. "They have the ability to match the daring deeds of the previous teams," he said. "I think I have done my job in providing us with the kind of back-up [we need]."

Sporting, for their part, have had their troubles this season. They slipped up over the weekend, held 1-1 by lowly Leixoes and they subsequently dropped to third in the Portuguese first division – 10 points behind leaders Porto. But they know that wins in their remaining two fixtures could enable them to pip Roma to a qualification spot.

"I think we'll see them going for it tonight and we must match them," said Sir Alex.

Manchester United (probable, 4-4-2): Kuszczak; Brown, Pique, Ferdinand, O'Shea; Fletcher, Nani, Carrick, Ronaldo; Tevez, Saha.

Sporting Lisbon (probable, 4-2-3-1): Patricio; Abel, Tonel, Polga, Had; Veloso, Moutinho; Izamailov, Romagnoli, Vukcevic; Liedson.

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