United win Juve respect

Ferguson sees this week's European crusade as a landmark for the club. Ian Whittell reports
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The Independent Online
Alex Ferguson's thoughts were centred as much on Turin as Old Trafford last week as he prepared Manchester United for their appointment with Rapid Vienna, and football destiny, on Wednesday evening.

United's fate could be determined by events in Italy, rather than Austria, on that evening. An upset for Juventus against the unpredictable Fenerbahce and even victory will not be enough to take United through to the Champions' League quarter-finals.

Ever the amateur - make that, professional - psychologist, Ferguson wasted no time in doing his piece for Anglo-Italian relations two weeks ago, heaping praise on Juventus and predicting that anything less than a total effort from the Italians in their final, irrelevant, group game against Fenerbahce was unthinkable.

Last week, the trend of mutual appreciation was reversed, according to the United manager, who gleefully relayed reports that had reached him from Turin.

"The Juventus players have been saying in Italy that we are the biggest threats to their European Cup hopes," Ferguson said. "They reckon we produced the best performance against them in the last three years, including games in Italy. It is good to hear that."

Of course, for United to challenge Juventus' hold on the European Cup, and fulfil the ambition that has consumed Ferguson ever since he led the club to the English Championship for the first time in 1993, they must first qualify for the next stage.

The magnitude of such an achievement is not lost on Ferguson. Twice United have failed spectacularly to master the early stages of the competition they won 29 years ago. Ferguson believes that Wednesday could see a landmark game for a young side who, potentially, have so much of their football life stretching ahead of them.

"I think qualifying would be the most important thing in the development of the young players and a big step for all of us," Ferguson said. "It gives all of us motivation, and not just the young lads; no one here is beyond being motivated by this goal."

For once, even Ferguson is not attempting to play down the importance of a game. With United's title defence starting in inauspicious fashion and the team, albeit an unfamiliar side, knocked out of the Coca-Cola Cup in midweek, an undignified European exit is not an attractive proposition.

Preparations have not gone smoothly, however, especially with regard to the availability of Gary Pallister, who is still recovering from a cartilage operation.

"The most important thing to me is that I have a full squad available," admitted Ferguson, who is already resigned to travelling without long- term injury victims Phil Neville and Andy Cole.

"I know now what my side would be if everyone were available but a lot could happen before Wednesday. If you start getting injuries you have to start adjusting your sights tactically, which we have had to do several times already this season."

Indeed, the second-half display against Juventus was all the more impressive given that Phil Neville's hamstring injury necessitated Roy Keane, United's influential midfielder, playing at centre-half for all but 10 minutes. Before that, Ferguson's tactics had come under scrutiny, most notably his decision to play Eric Cantona as a lone striker in the losses in Turin and against Fenerbahce.

The United manager was waiting for damage reports from yesterday's Premiership meeting with Leicester before finalising his team for Vienna, but the philosophy is already established.

"We know a draw could be sufficient if Juve win but we can't possibly approach the game that way," he said. "We are aware how important this game is and we have to focus on victory. But we will approach the game in a sensible manner, which means that we will not go in with a gung-ho attitude. Vienna have their own objective, which is to win, and we have got to make sure we don't give them help."