Bequest that kept United at the banquet

Fortune favours Ferguson as he and Wenger raise the stakes on two battlegrounds
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The Independent Online

As the last dregs drained out of Old Trafford late into the night, a street seller wishing to be rid of his few remaining wares was offering posters of Manchester United. "Come on, they're free," he shouted, but he was largely ignored. Maybe the red-and-white passers-by - even those who had not been indulging in prawn sandwiches - had been sated with too many presents that evening.

As the last dregs drained out of Old Trafford late into the night, a street seller wishing to be rid of his few remaining wares was offering posters of Manchester United. "Come on, they're free," he shouted, but he was largely ignored. Maybe the red-and-white passers-by - even those who had not been indulging in prawn sandwiches - had been sated with too many presents that evening.

For Dynamo Kiev, or rather George Demetradze, had donated a gift of sumptuous proportions when he missed from an improbably close range on Wednesday night. If the Georgian had scored, United would have been deprived of millions of pounds, the plc's share price would have plummeted and, as Ryan Giggs had said over-dramatically in the build-up: "The season would be over." The Uefa Cup, it seems, now has roughly the same worth as the Worthington Cup when scrutinised through red glasses.

The grandness of Demetradze's bequest became even more apparent on Friday when the draw for the second phase of the Champions' League was made. Leeds found themselves thrown into a group containing Real Madrid and Lazio; United would have been indulging in déjà vu had they not been overwhelmed with relief. Sturm Graz and Valencia are opponents they successfully overcame 12 months ago, while Panathinaikos qualified with only eight points in the first stage, albeit ahead of Juventus.

It is a less-than-formidable barrier and one that could see Arsenal, whose group includes the seemingly surmountable Bayern Munich, Spartak Moscow and Lyon, and United going head to head in both the Premiership and Europe next spring. As Peter Kenyon, the chief executive at Old Trafford, said: "It's a positive drawfor us."

Whether United deserved these riches is a moot point. "We'll get stronger in the second phase," was Sir Alex Ferguson's rallying call, although whether he spoke with conviction or in hope is debatable because, even as he wallowed in qualified and qualifying praise, events were turning against him. Giggs has succumbed to an annual hamstring injury and Andy Cole, the other of his players with extraordinary pace, is out until the new year with an Achilles problem.

By then United will have played two second-phase matches - Panathinaikos at home and Sturm Graz away - and their fate in the Champions' League, while not settled, could be heading that way. Benign the draw may have been, but United have to get better, because they could barely be worse than they were on Wednesday.

Roy Keane's attack on the Old Trafford crowd was ill-timed, because the noise emanating from the monolithic stands had been substantial when the match kicked off and it was the dross that the home players served up that turned down the volume. Ferguson had warned his players not to go gung-ho in pursuit of goals, and no one could accuse them of disobeying orders. Instead they slowed to near-paralysis after Teddy Sheringham had put them ahead, and allowed Kiev almost to grab a draw that would have had United, like Juve and Barça, watching the Champions' League from afar.

This, it should be noted, against a Ukrainian side who included five players aged 22 or under in their starting line-up and who finished with a team with an average age of little more than 23.What Sergei Rebrov and Andrei Shevchenko would have done to United's still-vulnerable defence does not bear thinking about.

Jaap Stam's return allied to the burgeoning maturity of Wes Brown will introduce stability at the back but will not solve United's enduring problem: their predictability. Essentially, Ferguson is using the same outfield players as in the successful campaign two seasons ago, and it would take organisation of Palm Beach County election proportions not to notice that their goal threat stems from the flanks.

David Beckham can be banished to the periphery if he is double-marked, as England and United have discovered to their cost before, and it has been the skill and acceleration of Giggs that has given United their sharpest edge. "He was the one player Kiev could not cope with," Ferguson said; it was no coincidence the Ukrain-ians were making their biggest inroads on the same flank once the Welshman had to retire.

Before the campaign began Ferguson acknowledged that Europe knew United inside out, adding: "We'll have to spring a few surprises." What they are we have yet to find out, because the only innovation has been occasional forays through the centre by Giggs. You do not have to be Sven Goran Eriksson to notice that one.

Last week Ferguson said he felt it had been a mixture of his team changes and a bad night in Brussels that reduced United to needing a win on Wednesday, but an alternative case could be made that the only blip in the Champions' League this season was the 5-1 demolition of Anderlecht two months ago. PSV Eindhoven were drawing 1-1 15 minutes from the end at Old Trafford, and Kiev should have got a draw.

One precedent does provide hope, however. One of the biggest clubs in Europe struggled early last season and were transformed later: the eventual winners, Real Madrid.

Champions' League second phase

GROUP A

Valencia (Sp), Sturm Graz (Aut), Manchester United (Eng), Panathinaikos (Gr).

Tues 22 Nov: Valencia v Sturm Graz, Man Utd v Panathinaikos. Wed 6 Dec: Panathinaikos v Valencia, Sturm Graz v Man Utd. Wed 14 Feb: Sturm Graz v Panathinaikos, Valencia v Man Utd. Tues 20 Feb: Panathinaikos v Sturm Graz, Man Utd v Valencia. Wed 7 Mar: Sturm Graz v Valencia, Panathinaikos v Man Utd. Tues 13 Mar: Valencia v Panathinaikos, Man Utd v Sturm Graz.

GROUP B

Milan (It), Deportivo La Coruña (Sp), Paris St-Germain (Fr), Galatasaray (Turk).

Tues 22 Nov: Milan v Galatasaray, PSG v Deportivo. Wed 6 Dec: Deportivo v Milan, Galatasaray v PSG. Wed 14 Feb: Galatasaray v Deportivo, Milan v PSG. Tues 20 Feb: Deportivo v Galatasaray, PSG v Milan. Wed 7 Mar: Galatasaray v Milan, Deportivo v PSG. Tues 13 Mar: Milan v Deportivo, PSG v Galatasaray.

GROUP C

Bayern Munich (Ger), Arsenal (Eng), Spartak Moscow (Rus), Lyon (Fr)

Wed 23 Nov: Bayern v Lyon, Spartak v Arsenal. Tues 5 Dec: Arsenal v Bayern, Lyon v Spartak. Tues 13 Feb: Lyon v Arsenal, Bayern v Spartak. Wed 21 Feb: Arsenal v Lyon, Spartak v Bayern. Tues 6 Mar: Lyon v Bayern, Arsenal v Spartak. Wed 14 Mar: Bayern v Arsenal, Spartak v Lyon

GROUP D

Real Madrid (Sp), Anderlecht (Bel), Lazio (It), Leeds United (Eng).

Wed 23 Nov: Leeds v Real Madrid, Anderlecht v Lazio. Tues 5 Dec: Lazio v Leeds, Real Madrid v Anderlecht. Tues 13 Feb: Real Madrid v Lazio, Leeds v Anderlecht. Wed 21 Feb: Lazio v Real Madrid, Anderlecht v Leeds. Tues 6 Mar: Real Madrid v Leeds, Lazio v Anderlecht. Wed 14 Mar: Leeds v Lazio, Anderlecht v Real Madrid

Quarter-finals: 3 or 4 and 17 or 18 April.

Semi-finals: 1 or 2 and 8 or 9 May.

Final: 23 May (San Siro, Milan).

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