Ferguson's European path to start with a splash

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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson has been able to defy many things in his time at Manchester United but acts of God are not among them. Yesterday evening Bucharest seemed as though the Danube had burst its banks; a vicious electrical storm crashed down over the city and further soaked the already sodden pitch at the national Lia Manoliu Stadium. The avenues resembled rivers, the streets streams.

Sir Alex Ferguson has been able to defy many things in his time at Manchester United but acts of God are not among them. Yesterday evening Bucharest seemed as though the Danube had burst its banks; a vicious electrical storm crashed down over the city and further soaked the already sodden pitch at the national Lia Manoliu Stadium. The avenues resembled rivers, the streets streams.

Manchester United arrived in Romania for the first leg of their Champions' League qualifier with Dinamo Bucharest in sunshine but groundstaff had been working for a day to dry out the waterlogged surface. Even before the storm broke, which forced United to shift their training session to Dinamo's own much smaller stadium, the groundsman at the Lia Manoliu rated chances of play as slim - a statement Ferguson vigorously rejected.

Tonight's game, one of the most important single fixtures Ferguson faces this season, will go ahead - Manchester United's schedule does not allow otherwise. However, with United missing eight players with a combined transfer value of £80m and others dangerously short of match practice, the result is unpredictable.

Two years ago, in Budapest, Manchester United faced a Champions' League qualifier on a similarly dreadful surface against Zalaegerszeg and lost embarrassingly 1-0, a result overturned in the second leg at Old Trafford. Almost uniquely in European football, Manchester United do not need the money Champions' League qualification brings, but after their defeat by Arsenal in the Community Shield and a drab, wearying tour of the United States a reverse here would leave them in a poor mental state to face Chelsea when their Premiership campaign opens on Sunday. Even the weather has dogged them. Last week's Vodafone Cup encounter with Urawa Red Dragons was cancelled because of lightning over Old Trafford.

Dinamo Bucharest, who have won the Romanian championship three times in the last five years, are rather better than the Hungarians, and Ferguson anticipated a similar kind of encounter: "You can have stumbles anywhere," he said. "We went to Hungary and lost a game we controlled and that could very well be the same here. That team retreated to the box when they were down to 10 men, held their line and never looked like losing a goal. We have to be aware that Dinamo might do the same. I would never take a draw because we have the capabilities to win it." That was before the rain came and, interestingly, United have lost three of their last five away games in Europe.

With Ruud van Nistelrooy and Louis Saha likely to be absent for another month, much depends on Alan Smith. As he arrived at Manchester Airport, there was a Leeds fan waiting for him, a fair size and wearing the team strip. As the striker turned a corner, he grabbed Smith and warmly shook his hand. Already in his short time at Old Trafford Smith has received plenty of plaudits and tonight will operate as a lone striker with Paul Scholes providing support.

"I think he has been revelling in his new club," Ferguson said. "He has the appetite to work and the courage to play; he has been a revelation. This game will be no problem for him. I remember the game in Rome, Leeds against Lazio, he was absolutely fantastic and if you have that kind of European experience, it's a bonus coming to a club like Manchester United. Not everyone has that. Ruud van Nistelrooy didn't; he had just one season with PSV Eindhoven. Alan has three years of European football with Leeds." The loss of Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer for the rest of the season following a knee operation is a further blow, although Ferguson thought this might not be the end of the Norwegian's career. "Normally, if a 31-year-old is out for a year, then you start to worry but Ole is a very young 31-year-old, he has looked after himself. Lothar Matthaus had a cruciate injury at 33 and woke up every morning at four to go to the gym and train - he carried on until he was 36 because he made that sacrifice."

Dinamo Bucharest (probable 3-4-1-2): Gaev; Ciobotariu, Alistair, lordache; Irimia, Tames, Margaritescu, Semeghin; Petre; Niculescu, Danciulescu.

Manchester United (probable 4-4-1-1): Howard; G. Neville, O'Shea, Silvestre, Fortune, Fletcher; Keane, Djemba-Djemba, Giggs, Scholes; Smith.

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