Ferguson: 'We will be stronger in the second group stage'

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The Independent Football

It was as Sir Alex Ferguson had feared, Manchester United were "one kick away" from elimination, although it was fortunate that the kick in question, from Georgi Demetradze, should have been so badly miscued. Had it fallen to Andrei Shevchenko, the man the Georgian replaced, then United might be contemplating competing in the Uefa Cup.

It was as Sir Alex Ferguson had feared, Manchester United were "one kick away" from elimination, although it was fortunate that the kick in question, from Georgi Demetradze, should have been so badly miscued. Had it fallen to Andrei Shevchenko, the man the Georgian replaced, then United might be contemplating competing in the Uefa Cup.

United have sometimes been a lucky team in Europe and never more so than in a move which Ferguson smilingly said had spread heart attacks through the bench. The falling to earth of Barcelona and Juventus, whom the Champions' League was designed to protect from the lottery of a knock-out cup, "made you sit up and take notice," said Ferguson. "I don't think it gives us a special advantage because I've always thought we would be stronger in the second phase."

United have qualified on the back of only two convincing performances, the 5-1 rout of Anderlecht and the goalless draw in Kiev. Unlike their last "must-win" game, the 3-2 defeat to Real Madrid last season, they did not fall into the temptation of over-attacking.

"We deserved to go through in terms of possession but I don't think it does you any harm to go through that type of near-run thing because it did require a lot of discipline," said Ferguson. "It was a situation where concentration was going to be vital and so it proved."

Given that Ferguson believed Kiev's defence coped as well with United's forward line as any side at Old Trafford this season, Teddy Sheringham's goal, his 12th of a campaign that may earn him an England recall, was incalculably precious.

The value was only seen in the wake of the withdrawal of Ryan Giggs, who Ferguson remarked, "was the one player Kiev couldn't cope with". It has earned his club a minimum of £6m for qualification to the second stage and preserved their European reputation. "It was a fantastic goal," said Ferguson.

"The real brilliance was shown by the way he knew Roy Keane was behind him when he laid the ball across to him and the way he finished off the rebound." United might have finished the match soon after but their supporters have learned to live on their nerves on European nights and this match, with its stark consequences of failure, generated a tension that few Champions' League group games have managed. "Kiev took the sting out of our game and, because we knew we were through at 1-0 and there was no reason to go silly, we were determined to show patience," said Ferguson. With no Barcelona, Internazionale or Juventus in the second phase, that patience may find an ultimate reward.

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