FERGUSON IN SEARCH OF THE ROAD TO REDEMPTION
as if it is an eternity since Manchester United were eliminated from the Champions League last season after finishing bottom of their group, but for Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager, and his players, the humiliation of ten months ago lingers.
Whether that alone is enough to drive them to success this season is one of the great imponderables, but as Ferguson himself said yesterday, desire and expectation have again given way to apprehension, in much the same way as they did in the years before United lifted their first European Cup under his governance in 1999.
That unforgettable evening in Barcelona, when a last-gasp 2-1 victory over Bayern Munich ended United’s 31-year wait to reclaim European club football’s most prized trophy, was the culmination of five seasons’ labour in the Champions League for Ferguson.
Some had begun to wonder before then whether he would ever clamp his mitts around those two giant handles, and as the manager prepares to welcome Celtic to Old Trafford tonight — what, as a boyhood Rangers fan and former player, he might term Glasgow’s other team — it seems fair to ask whether the greatest British manager of his generation will experience the ecstasy of that night in the Nou Camp again.
Seven European campaigns have passed, each, by and large, with dwindling fortunes, since United secured that historic treble of Premiership, FA Cup and Champions League, and with demanding new owners in the Glazer family and only a 12-month rolling contract to cling to, Ferguson knows that, as he enters his twentieth year in charge at Old Trafford, time is of the essence.
“I think that we’ve gone beyond that desire, I think there’s a bit of apprehension about it all again and I think it’s good to have that — when you have to do well,” Ferguson said. “When you get these inner feelings about the desire and the need to do well I feel better that way.
“If you look at our European campaign last year it’s best written off by us. We didn’t get to a level of performance and that was a lot down to the fact that we didn’t score goals. Hopefully that’s behind us and the players are eager to ensure that is forgotten.
“Experiences are great even when you lose if you have young players who want to learn from that. All the players know themselves that they are better than what they showed last year.”
What is certain is that, after underestimating the challenge presented by the likes of Lille, Benfica and Villarreal last season, neither Ferguson nor his players will be taking the threat posed by Celtic lightly, even if the manager’s claim that “we won’t let the fans down this year” echoed his defiant declaration before the cataclysmic 2-1 defeat by Benfica in Lisbon last December that “we’ll get through, don’t worry about that”.
“We are going to have to work really hard to achieve anything against Celtic and it also requires Manchester United to be on the top of their game,” he said. “I look back to situations like last season when we got the draw with Lille and Benfica and were saying to ourselves ‘Benfica are going through a bad time, and we have a great chance to qualify’, but we never scored a goal against Lille. That is very much on my mind, it doesn’ t matter how I or anyone else looks upon Celtic.”
The return of Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes from suspension will help in the so-called “Battle of Britain”, and both will start, providing the latter shakes off a knock suffered in training on Sunday, while Ferguson has every confidence that Louis Saha can take up the mantle left by the departed Ruud van Nistelrooy. “He’s as good as anything,” Ferguson cooed.
Of course, there is always someone hoping to spoil United’s plans, but while Gordon Strachan dismissed talk of a feud with Ferguson — strange given that both dedicate time in their autobiographies to criticise each other — the Celtic manager can scarcely have wanted to win a game more.
“What we are doing is representing Scottish football,” Strachan said. “Scottish football through Walter Smith and his backroom staff and players has had a wee turnaround in the last few months and we hope to continue that good work they have started.”
Ferguson, nonetheless, will be rooting for England, perhaps like never before.
MICHAEL CARRICK v THOMAS GRAVESEN
The most intriguing battle of the night could be between the man long billed as Roy Keane’s replacement and the man who actually filled the former United captain’s No 16 shirt. A dominant performance against the combative Gravesen would go a long way to helping Carrick to justify his £18.6 million price tag, while the Dane will want to convince that he can cut it at the highest level after a largely forgettable spell at Real Madrid
NEED TO KNOW
# This is the first competitive meeting between United and Celtic, although Sir Alex Ferguson has presided over nine testimonials against the Bank of Scotland Premier League club during almost 20 years at Old Trafford, the latest being Roy Keane’s testimonial in May, which United won 1-0
# Wayne Rooney and Thomas Gravesen were team-mates at Everton, and it was from the Denmark midfield player’s pass that the England striker scored his first senior goal, against Arsenal in October 2002.
# Since scoring a hat-trick on his Champions League debut against Fenerbahçe in September 2004, Rooney has not scored in nine subsequent appearances in the competition proper