United look forward to life in 'Hell'

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Manchester United flew into "Hell" last night and found their Turkish hosts were more interested in killing them with kindness than frightening them with death threats. Arriving for tomorrow's Champions' League match with Fenerbahce, they were beseiged with requests for autographs and television interviews rather than the jeering mob they had anticipated.

It is three years since United's infamous trip to play another Istanbul club, Galatasaray, when players received death threats and were beaten by police after the game, while more than 200 largely innocent fans were deported. United were held 0-0 and went out of the competition on away goals.

Like England and Poland, United and Istanbul appear to have become strangely linked ever since; this is their third visit in four years.

Gary Pallister said: "We know what to expect this time. The previous experiences stand us in good stead. The first time we went I didn't play, but I remember the reception at the airport. Those nice Turkish fans had banners like 'Welcome to Hell' and 'You will die'. It was unique. It took everybody by surprise."

Pallister then recalled a tale he recently related in the Independent on Sunday. "It was a cracker. I was walking into the foyer of our hotel and I saw a porter. I nodded to him as if to say 'alright?' and he lifted a finger and slid it across his throat from ear to ear. I thought, 'they've even infiltrated the hotel.' I think Peter [Schmeichel] had stoked them up in the first game."

In that match, the Danish goalkeeper grabbed a Turkish supporter who had invaded the pitch to protest in favour of the Kurds. The incident was reprised this weekend when a newspaper suggested he had received a death threat from a Kurdish group. Schmeichel vehemently denied that. "It's crap," he said. "It's embarrassing to read that sort of thing, I am sick of reading things like that. The story is total rubbish.

"We had some rough treatment from the police after the first game but it only lasted 15 seconds. There was a stone thrown at the bus but nothing else. The second trip was fine, just Turkish fans singing around the bus. So what? It's part of the normal atmosphere at a match, especially in that part of the world. You could hardly call it hostile."

The team's reception vindicated his thoughts, although the match itself is likely to be played in a lively environment. Pallister said: "It was a good atmosphere to play in - it is better to play in than something like a morgue. You can take it one of two ways. It can intimidate you or you can laugh about it as we did last time."

Pallister's main concern is not so much the Fenerbahce fans as his own back. He missed Manchester United's victory over Liverpool on Saturday with the injury, a recurrence of the problem that put him out of Euro 96.

Pallister did not want to discuss it, but his manager, Alex Ferguson, said: "Neither Pally nor [Ryan] Giggs trained today and I am a bit worried about them. Pally is the biggest concern, I want to see him in training. We have to be really careful with his back. If there are any doubts he won't play, we don't want to exacerbate it."

Giggs has a calf injury but like Paul Scholes and Jordi Cruyff, who also did not train, he is expected to be fit.

They may be in the land of the magic carpet, but United will be hoping a more prosaic wooden board will ease Pallister's worries. For some time, the club has travelled with bed boards for Pallister and Schmeichel, who has also suffered back problems. "We have the board and we will also sit him up the front on the plane and coach where he has more leg room," said Ferguson of Pallister. "You want your experienced players in for this one, they are a good side and really fancy themselves - that may help us."

Ferguson said he would involve Ronny Johnsen, the Norwegian international who was signed from the third Istanbul club, Besiktas, in the summer. "He has played at Fenerbahce and that is important," he said.

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