Ferguson puts faith in United maturity

Kiev's home record fails to intimidate in-form Old Trafford men ahead of tonight's Champions' League challenge
Click to follow
The Independent Football

European Air Charters had two planes taking off from Manchester Airport yesterday morning, one containing passengers hoping for a miracle, the other knowing they should not need one.

European Air Charters had two planes taking off from Manchester Airport yesterday morning, one containing passengers hoping for a miracle, the other knowing they should not need one.

While its sister jet was heading for Lourdes with a cargo fuelled by faith, Flight EAF 2124 was en route to Kiev carrying a Manchester United squad running on belief.

Twenty-two goals in seven unbeaten matches, five of them victories, have created a mood of imperious confidence within the United camp which even a nine-hour, door-to-door journey to a cold and rainswept Ukrainian capital could not dampen. Sir Alex Ferguson recognises that tonight's match against Dynamo Kiev in the Republican Stadium is the most daunting of United's first group stage ties, but the manager will feel a continuation of his team's domestic form should be enough to secure at least the draw which would cement their grip on a qualifying place.

Any lowering of standards, however, and United can be expected to pay.

Kiev, having sold both Andrei Shevchenko and Sergei Rebrov, are not the force they were, but they remain a powerful side. They lost their opening Group B match in Eindhoven despite taking the lead against PSV but are a different prospect at home. Red Star Belgrade, who held them here in the qualifying round only to lose in Yugoslavia, are the only team to avoid defeat here in 20 matches.

In place of Shevchenko and Rebrov are a Georgian, Georgi Demetradze, who scored six times in his last two domestic outings, and Maxim Shatskikh, of Uzbekistan, who scored 20 goals in 25 matches last season. Behind them are most of the team that defeated Real Madrid in the quarter-finals the year United won the competition. At the time the Spanish were the holders, as they are now. The goalkeeper Alexander Shovkovsky, his defensive guard Alexander Holovko and Vladyslav Vaschuk, and Andrei Husin, the midfield strongman, all have plenty of experience at this level but the current star attraction is Georgia's Kakha Kaladze, a £9m transfer target for Milan.

Ferguson, whose players were so enthusiastically mobbed by young Ukrainians on arrival that it needed some heavy-handed security to clear a way to their coach, said: "I don't know what to expect from them as they were very good in Eindhoven until PSV scored, then the game changed."

Of his own team, he added: "They are reaching the age of maturity, the age you hope and wait for, I know from my own playing days how much easier it was when you are in control."

Ferguson was speaking with particular reference to Beckham. Since the referee is Kim Milton Nielsen, Beckham's nemesis in St-Etienne, we may see the extent of his new maturity tested. This is because, despite the weather, and the absence of any cover, Kiev's status within Ukraine means passions may run high within the 86,000-seat bowl. Under the Soviet Union the club provided an expression of Ukrainian national pride much in the same way as Barcelona did for Catalonia under Franco. Homage is still paid to the Kiev team which are said to have paid with their lives for beating a Nazi XI during the war - an episode on which the film E scape to Victory was loosely based - despite doubts being cast on the legend by the discovery, in recent years, of survivors.

The influx into the Kiev team of non-Ukrainians has diluted the players' sense of nationalism but they still have the experience of the coach Valery Lobanovsky, whose science and stamina-based football formulas, developed over four decades, are currently being applied for club and country.

In the United side Fabien Barthez, who remained in Manchester for treatment on his back strain, is likely to be replaced by Raimond van der Gouw, though Mark Bosnich has been recalled to the squad. Roy Keane, who was suspended from the weekend win over Everton, Ronny Johnsen, who was injured, and Jaap Stam and Andy Cole, who were rested, are expected to return with the latter reviving his successful partnership with Teddy Sheringham.

Dynamo Kiev (probable): Shovkovsky; Dmitrulin, Holovko, Vaschuk, Nesmachny; Husin, Khatskevich, Kaladze; Bialkevich; Demetradze, Shatskikh.

Manchester United (probable): Van der Gouw; G Neville, Johnsen, Stam, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Giggs; Sheringham, Cole.

Referee: K M Nielsen (Denmark).