Major test for United's Asia minors
Wednesday 08 December 2004
Istanbul provided Manchester United with a traditional north-west England welcome yesterday: a drizzly, overcast afternoon and so much breeze on the Bosphorus that the pleasure boats were rocking like Fenerbahce defenders in Wayne Rooney's wake.
United reciprocated by touching down with a damp squib of a squad so devoid of "names" that there are probably still camcorder-carrying locals at the airport waiting for the real deal. Of the United side who beat Southampton 3-0 on Saturday, only Cristiano Ronaldo has travelled.
So there will no heroics tonight against Fenerbahce from the absent Rooney, who scored a hat-trick in the 6-2 drubbing of the Turks two months ago. Or from United's record European goal scorer, Ruud van Nistelrooy. Or from Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand or Alan Smith. There'll be a crowd in someone's front room in Manchester tonight.
Although some in this city are interpreting that as disrespect, Sir Alex Ferguson evidently believes his kids are all right. "This is not a shadow squad," he said, prickled by the notion that a team probably comprising the likes of Liam Miller, Kieran Richardson and David Bellion - the only striker in the squad here who could claim to be even semi-established - could be described as such.
"It's a very young squad but it's a good squad... I'm looking for a continuation of what they've done [in competitions such as the League Cup]." He added that a European match, away, was good experience.
Indeed, he said the match will show how far they have come, not least Ronaldo, who Ferguson said has "tremendous courage" and has "improved a lot" in a year, not least through recognising that he should not "overplay" being fouled so much. Or, in other words, dive. His team-mates did not approve, and he has worked on staying on his feet.
One journalist suggested that United's contingent is so weak that it shows Ferguson does not care about the game. It is the deadest of dead rubbers, with United and Lyon guaranteed berths in the knockout-stage and Fenerbahce a Uefa Cup spot. But Ferguson was having none of it, saying he needed to spread resources to cope with a busy month.
Ferguson was asked if he could remember arriving for a Champions' League match with such a "weak" squad. "Don't underestimate Manchester United," Ferguson said, slowly.
One local suspicion is that Ferguson would prefer to lose tonight, thereby increasing United's chances of finishing second and avoiding collisions with other second-placed teams - including Bayern Munich and possibly Real Madrid - in next week's last-16 draw.
"We're going out to win," Ferguson said, seemingly genuine in stating there was no guaranteed way to avoid every big-name club. Tonight's game is in a stadium technically outside Europe. The gauntlet is down to Fergie's Asia minors.
Fenerbahce (4-4-2, probable): Recber; Turaci, Fabiano, Cetin, Umit; Yozgatli, Selcuk, Balci, Tuncay; Nobre, De Souza.
Manchester United (4-5-1, probable): Howard; P Neville, Brown, O'Shea, Fortune; Ronaldo, Fletcher, Djemba-Djemba, Miller, Richardson; Bellion.
Referee: A Ibanez (Spain).
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