THOSE Manchester United players who had a fine view of the Alps as the team flew south to Nice yesterday may have considered a few footballing cliches about mountains and peaks.
The English champions' now perennial quest for the club game's highest honour begins anew here tomorrow when they meet Monaco in the European Cup quarter-final first-leg. United are confident, but wary. As Gianluca Vialli, a European champion with Juventus, noted after their weekend victory over his Chelsea team: "You can play well for eight months but one bad performance and the Cup is gone."
United have not been scaling the peaks recently but they have been gradually rediscovering the form of autumn. Saturday showed their artisan side, an aspect which may need to be to the fore again tomorrow.
"I hope Saturday was a barometer to Wednesday night," said the manager, Alex Ferguson, yesterday. "We had to defend against clever players like Vialli and [Gianfranco] Zola. It was a guide to what we will face from Monaco."
United's only concern - with the injured Ryan Giggs definitely out - is Gary Pallister, who lasted 27 minutes at Stamford Bridge before departing with a back injury. "He had treatment on Sunday and again this morning," said Ferguson, "but we will not be taking any risks." With Monaco possessing exceptional pace in attack, notably in Thierry Henry and Victor Ikpeba, Ferguson is likely to turn instead to Henning Berg.
Ikpeba scored twice in extra-time as Monaco, third in the French league, beat Marseilles 2-0 in the cup at the weekend. Yet that competition is no more of a priority to Jean Tigana, the Monaco coach, than the English one was to Ferguson. David Trezeguet, the 20-year-old striking prospect who made his France debut in January, defender Franck Dumas and Scotland's John Collins were rested and the Algerian midfielder Ali Benarbia and Henry put on the bench. All are expected to be fit tomorrow.
United's supporters began arriving yesterday, accompanied by one of the Football Association's security officials. The club have sold 2,200 tickets and a similar number of ticketless fans are expected to travel. Trouble, apart from isolated drink-fuelled idiocy, is not expected, partly through the high drink prices, and partly because there is no one here to fight.
Monaco's average gate is about 5,000 and their club shop is smaller than the burger vans on Sir Matt Busby Way. If it were not for the regal Grimaldi family's subsidy the club would be little bigger than Emley. As it is, they are meeting United on equal terms.
United are staying across the border near Nice but, when they cross into the principality for training at the Stade Louis II tonight, they should feel at home. This is a millionaire's playground after all.
l The Manchester-based bookmaker Fred Done is paying out now to punters who backed United to win the Premiership, irrespective of who wins the title. Within hours, pounds 15,000 had been snapped up.
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