There is a footballing enmity that dates back even further than any friction between Sir Alex Ferguson and Gordon Strachan. It is the bad blood between England and Scotland, and for the Celtic manager it forms an important sub-plot to their first-ever competitive meeting with Manchester United as the Champions' League group stage returns to Old Trafford tonight.
Strachan was breezing through a media conference at his old jinking ground yesterday, seemingly unfazed by the prospect of Wayne Rooney's reappearance for United, until a Dutch reporter asked him to explain the rivalry between the English and the Scots. A shock of ginger hair slumped forward, the head resting on the table. Sitting up, grinning and shaking his head at the vastness of the subject, he confessed he could not.
He was happy, however, to accept that Celtic were standard-bearers for the Scottish game, even with the opposition managed by a proud Scot. "We are the champions, so there's a lot of pressure on us," Strachan said. "We're representing the country as well as the club."
Similar issues were raised before United outclassed Rangers, Ferguson's first love, in 2003. Strachan was too shrewd to be drawn into claiming Celtic would do better than the other half of the Old Firm. Instead, he took his cue from his predecessor, Martin O'Neill, who played up their underdog status before beating Blackburn and Liverpool en route to the Uefa Cup final.
"Our squad is not as good as United's," Strachan stated bluntly. Yet his options have been enhanced since the draw was made by the acquisition of Thomas Gravesen, Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Lee Naylor. He planned to confront his old adversary with a blend of "brave young men and experienced players", with the youth concentrated at the back.
If Strachan and Celtic have a point to prove, having gone out at the qualifying stage last season after a 5-0 rout by Artmedia Bratislava in Slovakia, the same is true of Ferguson and United. A dearth of goals ensured they finished bottom in what looked a winnable group containing Benfica, Villarreal and Lille, but Ferguson insisted his players were "better than they showed last time".
The United manager was keen to caution against the notion that their superiority over Rangers had any relevance. He saw Celtic as a team in transition now that John Hartson and Stilian Petrov have departed, albeit one with some promising young Scots breaking through. "We're not taking anything for granted," he said. "Their tradition is to attack and they'll bring 6,000 fans. We'll have to work hard."
Ferguson will change a winning team to accommodate Rooney and Paul Scholes. "Wayne, in particular, needs to be be playing again," he said, "especially with a massive game next Sunday [at home to Arsenal in the Premiership]." Rooney will be striving for his first goal in the Champions' League proper since a hat-trick on his United debut against Fenerbahce.
Strachan is likely to restore Kenny Miller in attack alongside Vennegoor of Hesselink. The former Wolves striker has yet to score for Celtic, but as his lone front-running role for Scotland has proved, his work-rate and pace make him better suited than Maciej Zurawski to counter-attacking away from home.
An under-strength United XI won 3-0 at Celtic in pre-season, and also beat them in Roy Keane's testimonial match. "Those games are no barometer of anything," Ferguson warned. "Our matches with them tend to be quite competitive, but they don't equal a European tie."
Manchester United (probable, 4-4-1-1): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Evra; Fletcher, O'Shea, Scholes, Giggs; Rooney; Saha.
Celtic (probable, 4-1-3-2): Boruc; Wilson, Caldwell, McManus, Naylor; Lennon; Nakamura, Gravesen, McGeady; Miller, Vennegoor of Hesselink.
Referee: L Michel (Slovakia).Reuse content