Liverpool cast shadow over Ferguson's quest

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The Independent Football

"Hey lads, do you wanna buy a T-shirt?" came the shout as United players filed through security at Manchester Airport before flight DM1625 to Valencia. "You can buy this one if you like." And with that, an imposing, shaven-headed Scouser pulled his top out away from his chest to allow Ruud van Nistelrooy, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney, smiling yet irritated to the core of his Evertonian roots, to catch a glimpse of a motif consisting of five golden stars, two Liver birds and the words "Champions of Europe".

Usurping Liverpool as the dominant force in English football was Ferguson's modus operandi when he arrived at Old Trafford from Aberdeen in November 1986 and yet, with that achieved and his great North-West rivals still a negligible title threat, he has been unable to keep their European supremacy in check. Liverpool led United by three European Cups when Ferguson came to England; 19 years and 11 campaigns later, they still do, courtesy of the infamous night in Istanbul that will be regularly recalled when United play at Anfield this Sunday.

Ahead of his 12th journey into the European Cup the United manager denied the success of Rafael Benitez in guiding a modest Liverpool team to the ultimate prize in only his first season at the club had raised the pressure and expectation on United to follow suit. Like it or not, however, Ferguson's attempt to add to his own unforgettable triumph in 1999 - "I thought that would open the floodgates for us" - is sure to be measured alongside what the Spaniard achieved last term.

"I didn't feel anything," he said, when asked to his emotions watching May's final. "It was the same when any team wins the European Cup; I just wished we were there. That's what happens when you have won it yourself and you want to go back there. I don't think it increases the pressure on us. We are better equipped to win it this year because our younger players have more experience and Ruud van Nistelrooy is in fantastic form."

United must face a Villarreal side that impressed in both legs of their qualifying round victory over Everton without Roy Keane, who has a hamstring injury. Keane's absence presents Alan Smith with his toughest assignment so far as he attempts to show he can be remoulded as a central midfielder, while Cristiano Ronaldo has made himself available despite the death of his 46-year-old father last week.

Villarreal (probable, 4-4-2): Viera; Rodriguez, Arruebarrena, Kromkamp, Senna; Sorin, Alavarez, Riquelme, Josico; Forlan, Figueroa.

Manchester United (probable, 4-3-2-1): Van der Sar; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze; Fletcher, Smith, Scholes; Rooney, Ronaldo; Van Nistelrooy.

Referee: Kim Milton Nielsen (Denmark).