Ferguson fixes United's horizons on Europe glory

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The Independent Online

Despite the hosannas that have accompanied his 1,000th match as manager of Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson was still restless. His mission, he insisted, would not be complete until he had regained the European Cup.

Despite the hosannas that have accompanied his 1,000th match as manager of Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson was still restless. His mission, he insisted, would not be complete until he had regained the European Cup.

On occasions like these, any manager's thoughts turn to the legacy he leaves and Ferguson argued that in the naked terms of European silverware, Manchester United still lagged behind clubs like Bayern Munich, Ajax and, though he did not name them, Liverpool.

"In terms of the general history of the club, we should be expecting to win it the same number of times as Bayern Munich, Ajax and the Milans," Ferguson remarked yesterday. "I would divorce Real Madrid from any comparisons simply because the number of times they have won it [nine] is quite exceptional. But against other powers in Europe, there's no reason why we shouldn't be thinking in these terms."

Assuming they manage a draw against Lyon tonight in his 106th Champions' League fixture, the first hurdle, qualification for the knock-out stages of the Champions' League, will all but be achieved. Even if Fenerbahce beat Sparta Prague, all United would have to do is avoid a four-goal defeat in Istanbul next month and they will be through.

In September, United were surprised by Lyon's inventiveness at the Stade Gerland but, as Ferguson pointed out yesterday, they now have Rio Ferdinand back plus the added firepower of Wayne Rooney. Injuries, meanwhile, have seriously weakened Lyon's defensive options.

It is the knock-out stages, however, which have too often proved Ferguson's undoing. The one European Cup final has to be set against two failures at the semi-final stage, both against opposition Manchester United ought to have beaten, and four quarter-final defeats.

Most people analysing Ferguson's time at United name his first trophy, the 1990 FA Cup, as the decisive moment in his career. The man himself said it came when beating Barcelona in the 1991 Cup Winners' Cup final. "It was highly significant because it was a team that was just developing; and the acceleration they made from there was amazing.

"If we had a barometer to mark our progress, it was Juventus. The first time we went over to Turin [1996] the intimidation of Juventus' name, playing in their ground, was too much for us. We used that as a yardstick of our performances in Europe. The next year we managed to beat them at Old Trafford and afterwards we got better and better against one of the most powerful teams in Europe and did not look back."

For his first game at United, Ferguson recalled he had a total staff of eight, now it is 36. "I remember going to Barcelona early on in my career with Bobby Charlton, looking around and Bobby saying, 'this is the way we should be'. I said: 'think of the staff they have'."

Staffing Old Trafford is no longer a problem and in other ways Manchester United resemble Barcelona, a club that has just one European Cup to its name. There has been a lot of spectacle but, in the harshest terms, too few trophies.

Manchester United (probable 4-4-2): Carroll, G Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze, Fletcher, Keane, Scholes, Giggs, Rooney, Van Nistelrooy.

Lyon (probable 4-5-1): Puydebois, Reveillere, Diatta, Cris, Berthod, Essien, Diarra, Juninho, Malouda, Wiltord, Govou.

Referee: K Nielsen (Denmark).

Lowdown on... Lyon

How do you beat them? They have trouble against pacey wide players cutting inside. A lack of midfield restraint away from home will put extra strain on an unproven defence.

How do they beat you? With midfielders bursting from deep, the French Champions can score from all areas. Brazilian playmaker Juninho is deadly from set plays.

Key man? The Ghanaian Michael Essien is a quick and powerful midfielder who has scored five goals this year.

Any familiar faces? Sylvain Wiltord scored 31 goals in 106 league games during four years at Highbury. His honours include two Premier League titles (2002, 2004) and two FA Cups (2002, 2003).

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