Ferguson's surprise party for Anderlecht

United are keen to avoid the danger of predictability in the Champions' League
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The Independent Football

Turn back to 1956 and Manchester United were as they are now: champions of England and waiting to meet Anderlecht in the initial stage of the European Cup. All very familiar, except the players then had none of the seasoned "been there, done that" about them. The Belgians then were not just the start of a campaign to dominate the continent, they were the first opponents United had ever met in Europe.

Turn back to 1956 and Manchester United were as they are now: champions of England and waiting to meet Anderlecht in the initial stage of the European Cup. All very familiar, except the players then had none of the seasoned "been there, done that" about them. The Belgians then were not just the start of a campaign to dominate the continent, they were the first opponents United had ever met in Europe.

Within a fortnight the Busby Babes had trumpeted their intent with a 12-0 aggregate win that included the 10-0 thrashing at Maine Road that endures as their most productive night ever in the competition. The Chancelleries of Europe had been rocked by the verveand skill of the youngsters in the scarlet shirts.

On Wednesday, a day after the 44th anniversary of United's loud and glorious entry into the European Cup, Anderlecht return to Manchester and in these less innocent days of the group phases whensingle-goal salutes are enough, a 10-goal thrashing is about as likely as a profitable Millennium Dome. Sir Alex Ferguson will be more than happy with a win that proved beyond his team when they were held by Croatia Zagreb on their debut last season.

Which is not to say the stage manager at the Theatre of Dreams has been filled by the ennui that gripped him in the first stage last year. Anderlecht, along with PSV Eindhoven and Dynamo Kiev, he believes, carry a romance that Zagreb and Sturm Graz did not have.

"It's an exciting group," he said, "far better than last year's. Anderlecht have a good history in the competition, they've won the Uefa Cup and the Cup Winners' Cup and great names have played for them. You can say the same about PSV while Kiev have produced some exciting players over the last decade even if they haven't always lived up to their potential."

Tedious it might have been, but the 0-0 draw against Zagreb that began United's campaign 12 months ago also highlighted a problem that would eventually prove their undoing against Real Madrid in the quarter-finals. Teams arrived at Old Trafford, posted two defenders to cut out the threat from Ryan Giggs and David Beckham on the flanks and waited for their chance to strike on the counter. It may have only been whispered hopefully in some quarters, but there were hints that Ferguson's team, essentially unchanged from that which won the European Cup in 1999, had become predictable enough to be nullified. It is something the United manager concedes himself. "Teams came to Old Trafford and defended in depth, Real Madrid being a perfect example. They played 4-4-2 all season, then came here with five at the back. It showed us great respect of sorts, but I'm tempted to make changes. We'll maybe try a few things in Europe."

An obvious alteration would be to employ Beckham in central midfield, but if people thought his place there against Bradford in midweek was endorsing Kevin Keegan's decision to do the same for England they should think again. Ferguson was at a birthday party in Ireland and did not see his charge's core Anglais in the friendly against France and, anyway, is loath to lose the crosses from the right that have frequently sliced open defences in Europe.

Nevertheless, Ferguson has not discounted Jonathan Greening, who occupied the flank against Bradford, or other youngsters like Wes Brown and Ronnie Wallwork. "They are ready," Ferguson said. "Their quality is good, their temperament is OK." Greening and Brown are known unknowns, if that is possible, but hitherto Wallwork had entered the consciousness only for the assault on a referee while he was on loan with Royal Antwerp last year that initially led to a lifetime ban which was later commuted to a 12-month suspension in Belgium. This season, however, Ferguson has consistently sung the praises of the locally born central defender who turns 23 tomorrow and over the weekend gave him two accolades by comparing him to Steve Bruce and offloading Henning Berg to Blackburn for a three-month loan.

"He's a very good player, always has been," Ferguson said. "His problem has been his height [5ft 10in] but what he's developed over the last few years is his ability to read a game. He's like Brucey. He knows when to attack the ball, when to back off and he's a brilliant passer who can come out with the ball really well."

Given his history, Wallwork would probably prefer to play against the Belgians in preference to anyone although, against Anderlecht's towering Czech striker, Jan Koller, whom Ferguson describes as "6ft 15in", his lack of height might prove an insurmountable hurdle. Jaap Stam, you suspect, will come out of mothballs for that clash.

As for the Champions' League, the lure has bridged the 44 years and the change in name. "It's an extra ingredient that you need," Ferguson said, "especially at this club."

"There is a difference in atmosphere about the place, a difference in preparation, a difference in anticipation. There have been some great European nights that you'll never forget."

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