Juventus provide proper measure

BRITAIN IN EUROPE: English and Scottish title-holders face testing opening encounters in Champions' League; Choice of tactics is crucial to United says Glenn Moore reporting from Turin
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Premiership bullies, or genuine European force? That is the question Manchester United must answer as they begin their Champions' League campaign against Juventus, the holders, in the Stadio Delle Alpi tonight.

Three titles and two Doubles in four years have established Alex Ferguson's side as among the greatest the domestic game has seen. However, their impact on Europe has been fleeting, the 1991 Cup-Winners Cup triumph being followed by a succession of premature exits.

Ferguson is committed to emulating Sir Matt Busby and lifting the Champions Cup. Only then can his team be regarded in the same glowing light as both that side and later Liverpool teams, and only then can its fulcrum, Eric Cantona, be accorded the international respect he craves.

"There is no question he wants to do well," Ferguson said of his captain yesterday. "All players want to play on the highest stage and he missed the World Cup because France did not make it and Euro 96 because he was not chosen."

Cantona will be aware that when he has played the European stage with Leeds United and Manchester United it has been with a stutter rather than a strut. Yet he has produced in the big domestic games and United hope his new maturity will enable him to make the step up.

"It is the right time for us," Ferguson added. "Our ability and temperament are good enough, the question mark is over the tactical side. Our inability to understand the tactics of our opponents beat us two years ago. At least this time I can play my best side; I do not have to leave out a foreign player who is an integral part of the team."

The foreign player restrictions, which are being swept away following the Bosman ruling, handicap United more than most. Tactically the teams were too aggressive, the midfield too often sucked forward and the defence exposed.

One remedy will be to play three at the back plus wing backs but United's experiments with such a formation, most recently at Derby, have not been successful. Even if Gary Pallister recovers from his knee injury they are likely to stick to a back four, not least because Juventus play with three forwards. Pallister is rated doubtful but most expect him to line up alongside either Ronnie Johnsen or David May. United are also without Roy Keane and Phil Neville, who both recently underwent surgery.

The Italian season only began this weekend (Juventus were held to a draw by Reggiana), so it is hardly surprising that their players are all fit. Yet they can only field six of the team which beat Ajax on penalties in last May's final. Moreno Torricelli is suspended (along with Vladimir Jugovic, a substitute that night) and four of the victorious team have left. As well as Fabrizio Ravanelli and Gianluca Vialli in England, Paulo Sousa has gone to Dortmund and Pietro Vierchowod to Perugia.

Eleven less noted names have also gone in a transformation masterminded by Marcello Lippi, the coach, and Roberto Bettega, the former centre-forward now executive director. The reasoning was sound but unusual. While clubs traditionally spend millions without looking further ahead than one season, Juventus have long-term budget plans.

The need for change stems partly from the exhausting playing style and partly from economics. At a time when Fiat are having to watch their spending, the Agnelli family, which owns both the car giant and the football club, cannot afford to be seen giving a blank cheque to the Old Lady.

Middlesbrough's pounds 7m offer was too good to refuse for Ravanelli while Vialli, like Roberto Baggio the year before, was allowed to leave rather than meet his wage demands. Arriving amid nine new recruits are Alen Boksic, Zinedine Zidane, Paolo Montero and Christian Vieri. All are younger (aged 22 to 26) than the players they replaced.

Fiat's own sales included one of their factories, now converted to the hotel where United are staying. An appropriate place, perhaps, to finally find top gear in Europe.

Juventus (probable): Peruzzi; Porrini, Montero, Ferrara, Pessotto; Conte, Zidane, Deschamps; Boksic, Vieri, Del Piero.

Manchester United (probable): Schmeichel; G Neville, Pallister, Johnsen, Irwin; Poborsky, Beckham, Butt, Giggs; Cantona, Cruyff.

Referee: M Merk (Germany).