For the Glazer brothers Avi, Bryan and Joel, coming to see their first match at Old Trafford will not be as straightforward for those fans who, before tonight, have never set foot on Sir Matt Busby Way. While other Old Trafford arrivistes need only click on the United website to obtain tickets to watch the game against the Hungarian team Debrecen tonight, the Glazers will require what sources at Greater Manchester Police described last night as a "major police operation".
Joel Glazer said in his first interview, on the club's in-house MUTV channel, that he had never missed a game played by the family's American football team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the family have said they will be at Old Trafford for the first match of their reign. However, last night there was still great confusion over whether three or any of the Glazer brothers would be at the game with GMP insistent that they had still not been told whether to expect the Americans.
In a statement the GMP chief superintendent, Andy Holt, said that he expected "a number of people" to hold a protest outside the stadium tonight and promised that although they had a "right to peaceful protest ... any violent behaviour will not be tolerated". Sources at GMP said that the force had contingency plans already in place should the Glazers decide to come, after the brothers had to be driven away from baying fans following their first and only visit to the stadium.
Neither the club nor the family's spokesman would confirm whether they would be attending the match which, although of comparatively little interest to supporters, is a crucial hurdle to ensure United's financing for the year. In qualifying for the Champions' League in August 2002, United suffered an embarrassing away-leg defeat to Hungary's Zalaegerzegi before winning the return leg. Defeat is not an option.
Although he later had reason to be cheery with the news that Rio Ferdinand had agreed a new deal, Sir Alex Ferguson was not in one of his better moods yesterday. He refused to enter into any discussion about the possibility of signing Michael Owen from Real Madrid and described the latest injury to Louis Saha as an "absolute tragedy" for the French striker.
However, the United manager was keen to stress that despite another knee injury to the Frenchman his squad was still in much better shape than it began last season when, Ferguson said, his side was "fragmented". Gabriel Heinze and Cristiano Ronaldo were on Olympic duty, Ferdinand was suspended and Wayne Rooney and Ruud van Nistelrooy were injured when United visited Dinamo Bucharest last August.
"You always set out in your pre-season to get to the point where you are playing with your strongest squad available," Ferguson said. "Last season we were completely fragmented in terms of availability. We had players suspended, players at the Olympics and two having operations - that's half a team. We started the first game with Roy Keane in the back four."
The form of Van Nistelrooy, who looked unsettled throughout the tour of the Far East, will be crucial if United are to address the goalscoring problems that beset them last season and Ferguson said that much would rest on the player he regards as "the best finisher I've seen in my time as a manager". "Ruud is a natural born centre-forward and when he hits goalscoring form that will make a massive difference for us," Ferguson said.
"I think English clubs have a great chance to do well [in the Champions' League]. I think there's a handicap in terms of the amount of football we have to play but Liverpool did it last year so it can be done."
He paid his Hungarian opposition the usual respects but there will be a great appetite for United to finish the job tonight ahead of an awkward trip to Debrecen two weeks from now when the Premiership season has begun in earnest. For their new owners this should be just the kind of tie that will allow them to see their expensive new collection of international footballers in full cry - if, that is, they choose to come.
Manchester United (probable) (4-4-2): Van der Sar; G Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze; Ronaldo, Keane, Scholes, Park Ji-Sung; Van Nistelrooy, Rooney.
Debrecen (probable) (4-4-2): Csernyanseky; Nikolov, Mate, Eger, Szathmari; Dombi, Sandor, Vukuvic, Halmosi; Bogdanovic, Kerekes.
* The little-known Hungarian team, Debrecen, play Manchester United for the first time. Debrecen hail from the third largest city in Hungary, in the Tisza region, 220km from the capital Budapest, close to the Romanian border. They qualified for the Champions' League by winning the Hungarian title for the first time, finishing six points clear of Ferencvaros, but this is the club's sixth European campaign - they were knocked out of last season's Intertoto Cup by Spartak Trnava. Debrecen's key player is the Serbian striker Igor Bogdanovic, who finished top scorer last season with 15 goals.
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