Defence key to European glory, says Ferguson

Once more the quest begins, but this time there is no romantic final destination. Somehow, Gelsenkirchen, venue for this season's European Cup final, lacks the resonance for Sir Alex Ferguson of Munich, Glasgow or Manchester, which have staged the contest in recent years.

If Manchester United make it to the Ruhr Valley in May, their manager will not mind. Neither will his captain, Roy Keane, who said: "You can talk all you want about quarter- finals, but at this level it's all about getting to finals."

Keane, famously, never has, missing the climax of United's astonishing treble season after picking up a booking in the semi-final against Juventus. Since then, there have been three exits in the quarter-finals and one in the semi-final. "We have proved over the last 10 to 11 years that we are the best team in England but it's doing it consistently in Europe that is the thing," he said yesterday.

As United prepared for the start of a new Champions' League campaign tonight with probably their most undemanding fixture in Group E, at home to Panathinaikos, Ferguson was asked why his side had fallen consistently short in the final furlongs. His answer laid the responsibility squarely at United's defence.

"I don't think we were terribly short against Real Madrid. If you score five goals in a quarter-final, you expect to be in a semi-final, it's as simple as that," he said. "We let in some soft goals in Madrid. Had we maintained the defensive strength we showed for most of the season, I think we'd have been in the next round.

"The one thing you know is that the defenders we have are all young and they haven't had two or three years playing together. I always go on about Bruce and Pallister's consistency, but they played for five years and hardly missed a game. They had that understanding and unity and with Denis Irwin and Peter Schmeichel it was a great period for us defensively. That's what we're looking for now."

It is curious that knowing Wes Brown would not be fit to begin this season, none of the plethora of new faces Ferguson brought to Old Trafford this summer belonged to a central defender. It should not undermine United overly much, since Rio Ferdinand had recovered sufficiently from a kidney complaint which forced him out of England's last two European Championship qualifiers to play at Charlton Athletic on Saturday, although Mikael Silvestre is still doubtful. The midfield is, if anything, more problematic. The ankle injury Keane sustained at The Valley will prevent him playing this evening, while Kleberson is still unfit and United are debating the timing of the third hernia operation of Paul Scholes' career.

Cristiano Ronaldo is therefore likely to make his Champions' League debut at the age of 17, after a weekend which had witnessed the first slur on his young talent; an accusation by Charlton's Chris Perry that he was rather too willing to fall to the floor. It was a remark his manager treated with bemused contempt.

"I have seen some of the tackles and Atlas would have gone down under some of those challenges," he said.

Ferguson exploded with indignant laughter before deflecting attention towards Robert Pires' antics for Arsenal at Highbury. "If you bring in foreign players you get that kind of diving, although I'm sure Ronaldo was not diving on Saturday," he said. "You would be a fool not to go down with some of those tackles. But we have seen other evidence over the weekend that it is a problem."

This will be the seventh meeting between United and Greek opposition in the past two years and although Panathinaikos have failed repeatedly to break Olympiakos's stranglehold on the Hellenic National League, their counter-attacking style has posed United more problems than their great rivals.

"Panathinaikos have been in Europe many times and it's not an issue for them," Ferguson recalled. "If you go back two years, they gave us a real[ly] tough time in Athens. We were very, very fortunate that night. It was probably one of the luckiest 1-1 draws ever."

Then, in the Spiros Louis stadium, United were rescued by the heroics of Fabien Barthez and Scholes's unerring ability to score late goals. For varying reasons, neither will be available tonight.

Manchester United: (probable 4-4-1-1): Howard, G Neville, Ferdinand, O'Shea, P Neville, Solskjaer, Butt, Djemba-Djemba, Ronaldo, Giggs, Van Nistelrooy.

Panathinaikos: (probable 4-4-1-1): Nikopolidis, Seitaridis, Henriksen, Kirgiakos, Fyssas, Epalle, Zutauras, Warzycha, Papadopoulos, Sanmartean, Konstantinou.

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