Ferguson puts faith in Dutch striker for 'greatest challenge'

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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson paused, dipped into his photographic memory and wound the tape back on more than a thousand games as manager of Manchester United. At length, he said: "Given we are 1-0 down to a club of Milan's quality, this is the hardest task we have ever had."

Sir Alex Ferguson paused, dipped into his photographic memory and wound the tape back on more than a thousand games as manager of Manchester United. At length, he said: "Given we are 1-0 down to a club of Milan's quality, this is the hardest task we have ever had."

Ferguson added that even United's fabled 1999 victory in nearby Turin, when they defeated Juventus after going 2-0 down in the opening 11 minutes, did not match tonight's challenge in the San Siro.

His current United side, he believes, are better than the one which went on from that victory to win the European Cup but Milan are a better team, and in better form, with seven straight wins, than Juventus were.

Unsurprisingly Carlo Ancelotti, Juventus coach then, Milan's now, concurred. Nevertheless, Ferguson hoped his players would draw inspiration from that victory tonight, and Milan would be worried by it.

"Turin reminds everyone it is possible for us to do these things," he said. "I have to trust my players because they have done it so many times. We have that character in the team."

In United's favour while Milan's Andrei Shevchenko remains on the injured list, Ferguson can field Ruud van Nistelrooy, the competition's leading scorer this season.

The Dutchman is not yet match sharp, but he said last night he was in better shape than when he returned from an earlier injury against Lyon in the autumn and scored twice to inspire yet another United comeback.

"Ruud is ready in terms of fitness," added Ferguson. "He has no problems with endurance or the mental side. What he needs is games. He had chances on Saturday and I hope he gets them again because there is no one better in Europe at taking them."

How Ferguson fits his other attacking players around Van Nistelrooy is uncertain. He has played Wayne Rooney wide left, and may do so again with Ryan Giggs in a roving midfield role, but the occasion would seem to demand Rooney's deployment in the hole.

The first goal will probably be decisive, at least because United must score it to entertain any serious hope of progressing.

"Goals change games and we have to get the goal which changes [this one]," said Ferguson. To that end, while much of the pre-match speculation has centred on whether Milan will sit on their lead, it is United who have to be cautious. "Keeping Milan out is the key to the game," added Ferguson. "If we are 0-0 with 20 minutes to go I'll not be unhappy."

The man charged with keeping that clean sheet will be Tim Howard, who was dropped last season after conceding a bad goal as United lost to Porto in the quarter-final stage. He and Roy Carroll have rotated ever since and Howard is only back because Carroll's failure to hold a Clarence Seedorf shot gave Milan their goal at Old Trafford.

Pressed, Ferguson insisted: "I have full confidence in him. That is why I'm picking him."

To judge from Saturday's match at Selhurst Park, the absence of Gary Neville could be more significant. As well as his experience in defence, United miss the support Neville gives to the forward line on the overlap. The currently unconvincing Wes Brown deputises.

Milan have a doubt over Kakha Kaladze. Paolo Maldini is likely to switch to left-back, which would produce a fascinating clash between the veteran and Cristiano Ronaldo.

History does not favour United, Turin notwithstanding. Milan have won both previous European knock-out ties against United, have never been beaten in 10 home matches against English opposition, and have always scored in those games. In addition, 91 per cent of clubs winning their first leg 1-0 away have progressed in European competition, Milan doing so on all six occasions.

However, Ferguson, while a passionate believer in the value of history, also loves to contradict it. United do face an immense challenge tonight but no one who has watched them regularly under the Scot would dare write them off. Tonight's focus may be on the glamour tie at Stamford Bridge but these teams have won eight European Cups between them and may conjure a match worthy of that heritage.

Milan (4-3-2-1): Dida; Cafu, Stam, *Nesta, Maldini; *Gattuso, Pirlo, Seedorf; Kaka, Rui Costa; Crespo.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Howard; Brown, Ferdinand, Silvestre, *Heinze; Ronaldo, *Scholes, Keane, Giggs; Van Nistelrooy, Rooney.

Referee: H Fandel (Germany)

*Misses next match if booked

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