Old Trafford leaves visitors fearing the worst

Panathinaikos were beaten by Manchester United on Tuesday night. Of course they were, teams that come to Old Trafford for Champions' League group games usually are.

Their coach, Izhtak Shum, who had seen his Maccabi Haifa side similarly treated at the ground a year ago, was not unduly despondent for a man whose players had surrendered abjectly inside the first half-hour.

No team in Group E, he predicted, would manage to win here and a point gained by either Rangers or Stuttgart would be a distinct bonus for either club. Therefore, if defeat is expected, it does not sting quite so much.

History backs up Shum's argument of despair. Since winning the European Cup four years ago, Manchester United have played 25 group games in the Champions' League at Old Trafford, winning 20, scoring 63 goals and conceding 15. Teams that come away from Manchester with anything tend to have a pedigree.

The only club to have won a group game at Old Trafford since 1999 are Deportivo La Coruña, in a match notable for Fabien Barthez's errors which then Sir Alex Ferguson was prepared to forgive.

Of the four sides to have earned a draw, Bayern Munich and Valencia have both reached European Cup finals while earlier this year Basle were facing a United side which had already qualified for the quarter-finals.

In four years, the only underdog that can truly be said to have come to Old Trafford and secured something against the odds is Croatia Zagreb, who chiselled out a goalless draw in September 1999 under the management of Ossie Ardiles, a man not usually noted for his ability to fashion resolute, rearguard actions.

Panathinaikos were never in a position to mount one, especially in the face of Ryan Giggs, who was as inspiring as he had been against rather better opposition in Juventus' Stadio delle Alpi last season.

"He has been in the middle of the battle scene for 10 years," Ferguson remarked. "When you consider what he has achieved and the fact that he still keeps going, it's quite remarkable. It elevates him in everyone's mind." All the more so when it is remembered that nine months ago Giggs appeared entirely surplus to United's requirements.

This kind of form, so devastatingly expressed against a Greek side which never came to terms with its surroundings, is what makes Ferguson's calculations so easy. Each season the Manchester United manager demands 10 points to qualify from the group stages, and with three games beneath the forbidding ramparts of Old Trafford he is pretty sure to make the target.

The away matches are almost incidental. In 2000-01, United could qualify for the now-defunct second-group stage despite losing to Anderlecht and PSV Eindhoven and failing to win in Kiev.

However, the presence of Rangers, whose victory over Stuttgart Ferguson noted with a smile would "add spice" to his return to Ibrox next month, ensures that "incidental" is not a word United will be using overmuch about their away matches this season.

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