Ferguson out to eclipse Busby

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The Independent Online

The thousandth game, the one Sir Alex Ferguson admitted gave him goosebumps when he walked out at Old Trafford on Tuesday, is all very well. However, that tingle down the spine will be as nothing compared to what the Manchester United manager might feel in what could be game 1,038, depending on progress in the League and FA Cups.

The thousandth game, the one Sir Alex Ferguson admitted gave him goosebumps when he walked out at Old Trafford on Tuesday, is all very well. However, that tingle down the spine will be as nothing compared to what the Manchester United manager might feel in what could be game 1,038, depending on progress in the League and FA Cups.

It is quite conceivable that it will take place in Istanbul; a second European Cup final that would enable Ferguson to finally eclipse the achievements of Sir Matt Busby at Old Trafford. Certainly, qualification for the knock-out stages has been effortless.

Since the Champions' League began its present format a decade ago, only once in 1994 have Manchester United failed to qualify from their group.

As the Lyon coach, Paul le Guen, pointed out after his side had gone down 2-1 in a thrilling contest on Tuesday night, Old Trafford remains the key to understanding Manchester United in Europe. It is three years since they lost a European fixture there and as Le Guen remarked, "They are driven on by their fans. It is no coincidence that Manchester United have such a formidable record in Europe. They have a wonderful synthesis of individual talent and teamwork which responds best at home."

This year's group stage was much like last year's. United gave one unconvincing display - in 2003 it was in Stuttgart, this year it was away to Lyon - that they avenged in style at Old Trafford. Yet, as everyone now knows, this was followed by instant elimination by Porto.

The only question to be decided by the final fixture against Fenerbahce is whether United top Group D. Ferguson thought the question immaterial. "Look at the group that contains Barcelona and Milan; if you get drawn against one of those it does not matter where you finish. Real Madrid will almost certainly finish in second at best. There's no sense that you will avoid the top teams by being first and I intend to rest players against Fenerbahce."

Ferguson will be grateful that so little rests on this final group match. In December United play a minimum of seven fixtures, all of which are perfectly winnable. The United manager usually targets January as the time when his players click into full throttle to try to burn off the opposition. Twelve points off the lead in the Premiership, they may have to start the acceleration early.

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