Ferguson has no fear of European tears

United cannot afford a catastrophe against Kiev on Wednesday, but the manager backs them to keep their nerve
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The Independent Online

It has been some time - 18 months to be precise - since the words "must win" and "Manchester United" were used in the same sentence. After a seemingly never-ending sequence of Houdini acts on the way to their memorable 1999 Champions' League triumph, Sir Alex Ferguson's men were, until their off-night in the quarter-final second leg against Real Madrid, far more ruthless in last season's exercise.

It has been some time - 18 months to be precise - since the words "must win" and "Manchester United" were used in the same sentence. After a seemingly never-ending sequence of Houdini acts on the way to their memorable 1999 Champions' League triumph, Sir Alex Ferguson's men were, until their off-night in the quarter-final second leg against Real Madrid, far more ruthless in last season's exercise.

While the prospect of United failing to qualify for the next phase of this year's competition remains unthinkable, they had hoped to have their safe passage assured by now. Defeating Dynamo Kiev at Old Trafford on Wednesday should, in theory, pose no great problems, but everyone at the club will be acutely aware that they are just one lucky goal, one freak result, away from elimination.

The manager, who saw his team struggle for several years before they finally got the measure of the competition, is in no doubt his players will have to be at their best to overcome the Ukrainians. "It's going to be one of the most important European nights for a while," Ferguson said. "There is no denying that. We've made things difficult for ourselves, mainly because of our away form." United have not won on their travels in Europe for five matches.

"But that's been a feature of this year's competition," Ferguson added. "Most teams have gained their points at home. Something like 92 per cent of matches have been won by the receiving team. Our group is no different."

Theories as to why the Premier-ship champions have been somewhat unconvincing in Europe this season vary from the belief that the participants are improving to the suggestion that Ferguson's players are sometimes over-confident. The reason for their under-performing may be more basic. They are the leaders, and it is up to others to knock them off their perch. And all have been trying. PSV Eindhoven saved their best performance of the year for United's visit last month, while Anderlecht have described their 2-1 win a fortnight ago as the "greatest in the club's history". In many ways, Ferguson and his troops are prisoners of their own success. During the Treble season of 1998-99, United were the new kids on the European block. Today, they are the ones to beat, both at home and abroad.

"Two years ago, we were rising to something," Ferguson said. "We were making sure we didn't lose games. We'd set out to stall teams and then hit them on the counter-attack. Now, though, things are different. This year we've been dom- inating games without getting the result. Teams are giving us a lot of the ball and then sitting back, waiting for us to do the attacking. Even when they're at home, our opponents are playing like the visitors."

Not that the tag of "favourites" has ever concerned Ferguson or his players. He and they know what is expected of them, and neither fails to deliver very often. "We have learned to live with the expectation," the Scot said. "And the criticism, although some of the things that have been said are disappointing.

"I still think 10 points was a good target to aim for, but then I thought we'd get something from the game in Anderlecht. Instead, it's down to the last game, but we're used to that. We seem to live life on the edge a lot of the time. I think this is just a situation when we have to trust our players. They have the ability to beat any team in Europe, and I'm confident they'll do it on Wednesday. Of course, anything can happen in a game of football, but I know that Manchester United players very rarely let me or themselves down. My instincts tell me we're going to win."

Ferguson's uncanny knack of knowing exactly what to do remains as impressive as ever. He had a "gut feeling" that he should give youth their chance against Watford, in the midweek Worthington Cup tie, and he was right. What was mainly his third XI dispatched the best team of the First Division as if they were a pub side. The Watford manager, Graham Taylor, was not even offended by Ferguson's selection policy. "It doesn't matter which Manchester United team we play," he said after the 3-0 defeat. "It's still Man U and they're still the best club in the land."

What's more, they look like dominating the domestic scene for several more years. The goals may have come from the usual sources - Dwight Yorke and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - but the most eye-catching performances belonged to the lesser-known, emerging stars.

"I think the biggest test for any young players coming into your team is their temperament," Ferguson said. "And I felt they showed great composure against Watford. We know about players like Jonathan Greening, Michael Clegg and Ronnie Wallwork, who have been knocking on the first-team door for quite a while. But I was most impressed with John O'Shea and Luke Chadwick. They were absolutely magnificent and I can confidently say that I would have no hesitation in playing them in the first team tomorrow if I needed to."

O'Shea was solid in central defence, but it was Chadwick's artistry which most impressed. The Cambridge-born right-winger, who has just returned from his three- month loan in Belgium with Royal Antwerp, set up the first and second goals, and was a constant thorn in Watford's side. Chadwick's ability to play out wide might also allow David Beckham to operate in central midfield more often. "That is an option, yes," Ferguson admitted. "But what I like most about him is that he has a good brain. He sees a pass early and he gets it to feet."

Crisis? What crisis? Manchester United may not have taken the straightest of routes to European glory, but then you wouldn't really expect them to. Ferguson knows his ever-growing pool of talent is more than capable of winning the Champions' League.

And if they don't succeed this time, there's always next year. "That's the one I really want," Ferguson said. Why? The final of the 2002 edition will be held in Glasgow. If Manchester United make it there, Ferguson would be leading his team out for the last time before his retirement, in his home town. Don't bet against it happening.

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