Ferguson must restore European focus

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The Independent Football

The last time Manchester United were overcome by Anderlecht, Sir Matt Busby invited their players, all of whom were semi-professional, into his dressing-room so they could be properly congratulated.

The last time Manchester United were overcome by Anderlecht, Sir Matt Busby invited their players, all of whom were semi-professional, into his dressing-room so they could be properly congratulated.

It was November 1968 and Busby's great Manchester United side, with nothing left to win and no further heights to scale, had already begun the slow process of disintegration that would take a quarter of a century and another Scottish manager to properly heal. It would be tempting indeed to suggest that United's latest defeats in Eindhoven and now Brussels are early symptoms of a team on the turn that can no longer raise itself for routine European fixtures away from Old Trafford.

Alan Curbishley asked the question for all Premiership managers when he wondered: "How do you motivate 11 millionaires?" For Sir Alex Ferguson, the question is subtly different: "How do you motivate 11 millionaires who have won everything?"

Busby was seeing out his last full year in charge when he took his side to Anderlecht, and Ferguson too can see the end glimmering on the horizon. However, Ferguson's team is much younger and stronger than the one Busby possessed and is less prone to the kind of factionalism that was to pollute the club until it was cleansed by relegation in 1974. And, unlike Busby, Ferguson still has a goal; to win the European Cup again and so put his team on a higher plateau than the boys of 68.

There was, however, little evidence in the Constant Vanden Stock stadium that his team shared their manager's desire. At the start of this Champions' League campaign, Ryan Giggs said he did not believe United had been "properly focused" on Europe last season and their collective vision still seems blurred. After the game, United's captain for the night was as generous in defeat as Busby had been: "After what they did tonight, Anderlecht should be feared by everyone," Giggs said. "We never came to terms with their attackers, especially Tomasz Radzinski."

United's own forward line of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole was rather less formidable than the Czech-Canadian combination of Jan Koller and Radzinski. Lorenzo Staelens, the Anderlecht captain and central defender, insisted their problems were one of poor supply. "They played like stereotypes," he said. "Manchester United made the error of pumping long balls towards their forwards and that put us under far less pressure than if they had run at us at speed and passed to feet." Radzinski was blunter: "United were simply not as good as we thought they were."

However, United are not alone in finding difficulties with this stage of the competition. The first group section of the Champions' League, that was supposed to be all about providing Europe's élite with easy fixtures and plenty of television money, has provided some unexpected shocks. Barcelona have been beaten by Besiktas, Juventus were overcome in the Stadio delle Alpi by a little-regarded Hamburg side and neither are sure of qualification. Internazionale failed even to make it this far.

Nevertheless, Anderlecht's heroics on Tuesday night may not be enough. Their 3-1 victory in 1968 did not knock out United, since they had taken a three-goal lead to Brussels, and this latest defeat will probably not prove fatal either.

"It frustrates me that we are still not through with nine points," said the Anderlecht coach, Aimé Anthuenis. "We deserve to go through after the way in which we beat Kiev and Manchester United here."

Although they are in third place, United merely have to beat a Kiev side that has floundered away from home and are already eliminated while Anderlecht at the very least have to avoid defeat away to PSV. Should United win and the other two draw, all three sides in Group G would finish level on 10 points. Under the rules of the Champions' League, the three teams' results against each other would come into consideration. United would go through with the six points they took at Old Trafford behind Anderlecht, who would have seven from their games with PSV and United.



P W D L F A Pts

PSV 5 3 0 2 7 6 9 Anderlecht 5 3 0 2 8 12 9 Man Utd 5 2 1 2 10 7 7 D Kiev 5 1 1 3 7 7 4

If United beat Dynamo Kiev at Old Trafford in their final match on 8 November, they will qualify as runners-up. Anything less and PSV and Anderlecht will go through. The winner of PSV's home game with Anderlecht will top the group. If PSV and Anderlecht draw and United win, then all three sides will have 10 points. The tie-breaker is the points gained in the matches between the three sides and, by this criterion, Anderlecht will finish top and United second.