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Preview: Real Madrid v United

February 13, 2013 Tags: , Matches 272 comments

For all the attention grabbed by Manchester City in recent seasons there is still something compellingly attractive attached to a crunch European night against one of the continent’s giants – the clichéd European atmosphere under the lights and a departure from the hustled norm of the Premier league that has enduring appeal.

Not only does European football remain an irresistible product, but also genuine test of Manchester United’s place in world football – a team that few predicted could challenge on all fronts this season, but one that is outperforming all at home and abroad.

Indeed, Manchester United’s trip to Santiago Bernabéu to face Real Madrid on Wednesday night is, as Sir Alex Ferguson described it on Tuesday, the “acid test” of his team’s status. A test not only of United’s ability to compete against Europe’s best, but the Reds’ mental strength in what is likely to be a hugely pressurised atmosphere.

And while neither side is European Champion, and Madrid likely to acquiesce domestic hegemony this season, the are few who will reject the idea that United’s fixture with Madrid is not only the competition’s premier tie to date, but a clash between the world’s two most recognisable football clubs.

Yet, for all the perceived glamour United play in Madrid for the first time in almost a decade, with memories of a chastening 3-1 defeat at the Bernabéu in 2003 still fresh. Ferguson’s side triumphed in the return, only for Brazilian striker Ronaldo’s hat-trick at Old Trafford to prove decisive for Los Merengues.

Four years earlier and Real, sporting a teenage Ilker Cassilas and 22-year-old striker Raul, knocked the European champions out of the competition with a 3-2 victory at Old Trafford. On both occasions United had approached the opening leg in Madrid tentatively; on neither did Ferguson’s side progress, despite being widely regarded as favourites.

Once again United will start the double-header with Madrid in good form, although few pundits will assume Ferguson’s side is a banker for the tie despite Real’s damaging dressing-room politics. Once again one of Spain’s giants is inserted between Ferguson’s outfit and continental glory – and it hasn’t turned out well for the Scot in recent times.

Still, Ferguson remains defiant ahead of the match, with 71-year-old insistent this year’s United vintage is as good as any of his previous.

“Our team is capable of winning the Champions League,” said Sir Alex in Madrid on Tuesday.

“There is a great spirit about the players. People keep saying we’re not as good as past United teams but sometimes we get foggy impressions about the past and I do so myself at times. The reality is this team doesn’t know when it’s beaten which is a great quality. The acid test is tomorrow and we have to get through it if we are to win this trophy.”

Mourinho’s outfit begins the tie in decent form after hammering Sevilla 4-1 in Madrid last weekend. Cristiano Ronaldo’s 20th hat-trick during four productive years in Spain secured victory as the Spanish Champions cruised home more than 24 hours ahead of United’s weekend victory over Everton.

Fine form perhaps, and an additional rest for sure, yet dressing-room politics and a 16 point La Liga gap to Barcelona mean that this is likely to be the last campaign in which Mourinho commands the Spaniards. By contrast, Ferguson’s outfit travels not only in good form, having dispatched Everton last weekend, but amid a run of 14 matches without defeat since CFR Cluj emerged victorious from a dead-rubber group match last December.

“I think it’s a good time for us to be playing Real Madrid,” said Sir Alex.

“We have a fantastic lead in our league and we have everyone fit. When you come to this part of the season you [usually] have two or three players injured. We don’t have that, which is a bonus. We’re ready for tomorrow. Since the Champions League started, almost every year we have played one of the biggest clubs in the world.

“When I started as a coach many years ago, I dreamt I’d be playing against the top teams as a manager and you get the opportunity to do that in the Champions League on a regular basis. There is a special significance when you play the big teams and you’ll see that tomorrow. It’s just a shame we and Real are meeting this early. I wish it had been at Wembley, in the final.”

Real Madrid v Manchester United - Champions League, Santiago Bernabeu - 7.45pm 13 February 2013

Jones may be asked to mark Ronaldo, while Rooney will make up a five-man midfield. Elsewhere, Ferguson will choose between Rio Ferdinand and captain Nemanja Vidić in defence, while Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley should start in central midfield. Paul Scholes is the only absent through injury and did not travel.

Formations aside, Ferguson may ask his players to take a less expansive approach than has become the norm this season, with the Reds seeking to hit Real on the break while soaking up Spanish pressure.

It is, after all, Real’s ability to counter-attack at pace that will be Ferguson’s principle concern. Madrid’s rapid transition from defence to attack, using Ronaldo’s pace and tendency to create space from broken play, remains the over-riding threat to the Reds’ progression.

“It won’t be 0-0 tomorrow night, I can assure you of that,” promised Ferguson, despite the likelihood of United deploying a conservative approach.

“This match can live up to expectations. History always plays a part in this type of game, as does the two teams’ desire to go forward. Real Madrid are one of the best counter-attacking teams in Europe. Their speed from box to box is fantastic. But we have to play our own game too. Our intention is to win and to score.”

Meanwhile, Mourninho remains under pressure to deliver a 10th European Cup to the Spanish capital. The imminent loss of last season’s hegemony to a resurgent Barcelona ensures that Real’s focus is squarely on Europe where Los Merengues boast a record of eight victories from the past nine home matches.

“It won’t be a disaster if we don’t win the Champions League,” said the former Chelsea coach.

“There are some great teams and coaches who never won it. Real Madrid want to win their tenth title and I want to win my third. I don’t want to finish my career with two.”

It is a sentiment with which Ferguson can agree. One will certainly be disappointed over the next three weeks of football.

Match details
Real Madrid v Manchester United – Champions League, Santiago Bernabéu – 7.45pm, 13 February 2013

Possible teams
Real (4-2-1-3): Lopez; Arbeloa, Pepe, Ramos, Coentrão; Alonso, Khedeira; Ozil; Di Maria, Benzema, Ronaldo; Subs from: Adán, Fernández, Varane, Rodríguez, Essien, Modrić, Callejón, Kaká, Morata, Higuaín.

United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Jones, Cleverley, Carrick, Rooney; van persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Vidić, Büttner, Anderson, Nani, Kagawa, Young , van Persie, Hernández, Giggs, Welbeck.

Match officials (GER)
Referee: Felix Brych
Assistant referees: Mark Borsch, Stefan Lupp
Additional assistant referees: Marco Fritz, Tobias Welz
Fourth official: Thorsten Schiffner

Form
Real Madrid: WDWDLW
United: WDWWWW

Head to Head
Last 10: Real 3, United 2, Draw 3
Overall: Real 3, United 2, Draw 3

Prediction
0-0

Advantage Madrid as confident Reds head to Spain

February 11, 2013 Tags: , , , Opinion 54 comments

“It’s ridiculous to think,” said Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson ahead of United’s 2-0 victory over the Toffees on Sunday. “That we play on the Sunday and Real Madrid play on the Saturday with that extra day’s rest.”

Thus grew a thousand headlines – and whether Ferguson’s “anger” at the Premier League’s Faustian pact with Sky television is genuine or merely another tabloid circus, there is little doubt United’s manager has a point. While Real rolled over mid-table Sevilla far shy of breaking sweat on Saturday, Ferguson’s side faced a relentlessly physical encounter with with David Moyes ever-rugged Everton at Old Trafford 24 hours later.

It is not the first occasion on which Ferguson’s has openly criticised match scheduling ahead of a key European tie – and unlikely the last. After all, matches have long been scheduled not when they are most appropriate for supporters, nor indeed managers, but peak viewing times.

In the age of multi-billion pound contracts this devil has strong pull.

“We are not giving our teams a chance to be successful in Europe, but there’s nothing you can do about it,” continued Sir Alex.

“It’s nothing to do with the FA, it’s the Premier League. They agreed a contract with TV and they’re in control. You can’t reject it. What can you do? Not turn up? I’d love to do that!

“I’ve complained about and it and you’ve heard my complaints. Do you think they listen? Other countries do make sacrifices for their top teams in Europe.”

In lieu of the extra rest United fly out to Madrid on Tuesday with Ferguson having taken the bold move to deploy a strong side against Everton on Sunday. While many expected the Scot to risk a weaker side against Moyes’ outfit, Sir Alex takes significant credit in changing his mind after Manchester City’s collapse at Southampton on Saturday evening.

Ferguson’s infallible logic, shared by many supporters, was that victory over Everton would be a significant step towards English title number 20.

His players responded in kind, with right-back Rafael da Silva superb in shackling Steven Pienaar, and Phil Jones inseparable from United’s erstwhile tormentor Marouane Fellaini. Up front Wayne Rooney roamed with delicious menace, and Robin van Persie pulled Everton’s defence apart with his now customary movement.

There was none of the nervousness of last April, when United lost two goals against Everton in the final seven minutes to blow victory, and with it the league title.

Instead, the reward for Ferguson’s audacity is a healthy lead in the Premier League and an opportunity to rest players later in the season should United remain in contention on three fronts.

“I was going to make about seven changes but when I got the result, I felt this was a more important game for us because it could give us a comfortable lead,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.

“We can make changes later on in the season. It is realistic; we knew that if we got a good result today then we’d be in a positive position. We have got to win our games anyway, so it didn’t matter what happened to City on Saturday. That’s the way we should look at it and I’ve been saying that for week. If we concentrate on our own game then we’ll be okay.”

Meanwhile, Madrid hammered Sevilla 4-1 at the Bernabéu on Saturday, with former Red Cristiano Ronaldo claiming yet another Real hat-trick – his 36th, 37th, and 38th goals of storming campaign.

Ronaldo’s second, a long-range left-footed drive after a dribble that took out three Sevilla defenders, will remind United’s supporters, if any is required, of just how much damage the Portuguese forward can inflict. Ferguson may well deploy Jones to nullify Ronaldo’s threat; in this mood there is little anybody can do.

In keeping with Ferguson, Real manager José Mourinho picked a strong side to face Unai Emery’s struggling outfit. Ronaldo started the fixture alongside Gonzalo Higuian, Karim Benzema and Káká in a multi-talented attacking unit.

Not that Mourinho has a league title to concern him, with Real now 16 points behind Barcelona in La Liga. Defeat to Granada last weekend, in which Ronaldo scored the first own goal of his career, sealed Madrid’s fate if any doubt remained in an increasingly one-sided Spanish title race.

Indeed, it is Europe that offers the Portuguese coach his best chance of salvation this season, with Real facing Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey semi-final second leg later this month having drawn the opening game 1-1 at Bernabéu.

Little wonder Mournho is relishing the United tie, with the 50-year-old seeking to eclipse his old friend Ferguson in claiming a third Champions League crown.

“It is the match the world is waiting for,” Mourinho told MUTV with the coach’s customary flamboyance.

“People think we are under pressure because a big team will be out. But it is the kind of match we want and the people are not waiting for any other game. I hope we give them what they want.”

The two managers met at Old Trafford after the Reds completed victory over Everton, with Mourinho in Manchester to scout United ahead of next week’s Champions League tie.

“I feel privileged about [the meeting] because he is such an important person in the world of football and, more importantly, he is good person.

“I have always had a fantastic relationship with him and I am proud of it. We have had so many matches between us which started with Porto. We had some with Chelsea, Inter and now Real. Of course, I want to win and he wants to win, but I believe the loser will have a little bit of space to feel a little bit happy because of the friendship.”

The advantage lies with Real, of course, and not just because of the extra rest. Los Merengues haven’t lost at home in more than 30 matches. It is a statistic that places United’s task in context, 24 hours additional rest or otherwise.

Ferguson may regret deploying so many of his stars against Everton if a  jaded team suffers defeat at Bernabéu, but with the title now within reach few supporters will concur.

“When you shake hands with the devil you have to pay the price,” Ferguson once said of English football’s deal with Sky.

But it is the hell of City’s title triumph that fans, and Ferguson it seems, recalled with sharp focus on Sunday.

Preview: United v CFR Cluj

December 5, 2012 Tags: , Matches 64 comments

Unlike a certain parrot, this match isn’t pining; it’s dead. Very dead. Manchester United’s qualification for the knock-out stages was confirmed after victory on the road against Braga nearly a month ago. Meanwhile, defeat to Galatasaray in matchday five did little but confirm that manager Sir Alex Ferguson is unlikely to deploy many of his major weapons for Wednesday’s match against CFR Cluj. Not with a derby against Manchester City at Eastlands to come on Sunday.

The prospect of an under-strength United side at Old Trafford both excites and causes concern. Certainly, those fringe and young United players that feature against the Romanian champions will benefit for the time and experience.

Yet, with the title race kicking off in earnest on Sunday momentum remains an ephemeral thing; one that United rarely seems to have gain a firm hold on this season.

Last weekend’s fixture with Reading is a case in point. After a rare clean sheet achieved at home to West Ham United the previous Wednesday, Ferguson’s side shipped three in Berkshire amid some of the most haphazard defending the Scot has overseen during 26 years in charge at Old Trafford. There has been much talk of United’s defensive performances this season, but none match the chaos of the first half at Madjeski.

“We’re getting punished when balls go into the box, but we should be defending far better,” admitted Ferguson on Tuesday.

“It’s a worry, a concern – if we perform like that on Sunday, God knows what’ll happen to us. You only have to look at our goals against: we’ve lost 32 goals so far this season. I can’t remember us ever conceding so many goals before Christmas.”

Still, Ferguson should be able to field a strong back-four, with both Chris Smalling and Phil Jones likely to start as the pair seeks sharpness after long spells on the sidelines. David De Gea will return in goal after spending five matches on the bench, while United supporters will get another look at Dutch left-back Alexander Büttner.

Manchester United v CFR 1907 Cluj - Champions League, Old Trafford - Wednesday 5 December 2012, 7.45pmWhether changes instigate a modicum of defensive solidity is yet to be determined, although it would be hard to match last weekend for tactical entropy, whatever choices Sir Alex makes.

Yet, for the second game in a row Ferguson’s team will come under scrutiny. After all, both Cluj and Galatasaray could still qualify from Group H. The other side in the group, Braga, was not the beneficiary of Ferguson’s generosity of team selection.

“We’ll rest some players, like we did against Galatasaray,” added the 70-year-old Scot.

“We have to be fair to all the other teams who are trying to get important positions, either in the next stage of the Champions League or the Europa League. In that respect, we’ll send out a team we expect can win, but there will be changes.”

Even with rotation likely Ferguson says that striker Wayne Rooney will start after the 26-year-old scored twice against Reading at the weekend. That momentum thing again it seems. However, captain Nemanja Vidić will not play after the Serbian declared himself unfit to take part.

“Nemanja feels he needs another few days’ training so he won’t be available. He’s not far away. He’s training well now but I think another few days will bring him on better. When Wayne gets interrupted he needs three games to get back. That’s why he’ll definitely play tomorrow. Wayne needs to play a lot of games to get his match-fitness up.”

Vidić was unlikely to take part in Sunday’s derby either way, although the 30-year-old should play before the year is out. Elsewhere, both Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley could get minutes, with Javier Hernández and Danny Welbeck also in contention.

Meanwhile, Cluj arrive at Old Trafford seeking an unlikely win that could take the Romanians through to the knock-out stages. Whatever the result in Manchester, CFR is guaranteed European football after Christmas for the first time in the club’s history, with third place secure.

The Romanians parted company with manager Ioan Andone in October after a series of poor domestic results, with Portuguese Paulo Sérgio appointed late in the month. And with a new manager, comes a fresh impetus it seems, with Cluj suffering just one defeat in nine matches since Sérgio’s appointment.

In a varied career, Sergio has managed Vitória Guimarães, Sporting, and Hearts, among others. Indeed the 44-year-old is now into his eighth managerial position in nine years.

“We always prepare by thinking we can take something from the game – this game is no different,” said Sérgio, who left his position as Hearts manager after securing the Scottish Cup last season.

“It’s not important for me what Braga and Galatasaray are doing or what United do. It’s important to me that we focus on what we have to do.

“It would be an amazing achievement [to qualify]. I think that at the moment we should be happy that we’ll at least be in the Europa League. I don’t think any of you would have bet on us before the group stage began.”

In truth after last season’s calamitous campaign few expected United to qualify with such ease either. Topping Group H ensures the Reds avoid Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund, although Ferguson is unlikely to fancy a trip to Milan, Malaga or Real Madrid.

And whatever the result in the dead rubber, the Scot will surely enjoy a clean sheet above all else.

Match Details
Manchester United v CFR 1907 Cluj – Champions League, Old Trafford – Wednesday 5 December 2012, 7.45pm

Possible teams
United (4-4-2): De Gea; Jones, Wootton, Smalling, Buttner; Fletcher, Cleverley, Powell, Giggs; Welbeck, Rooney. Subs from: Lindegaard, Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra, Young, Carrick, Scholes, Hernandez, van Persie, Henríquez.

Cluj (4-3-1): Stăncioiu; Aguirregaray, Maftei, Rada, Sepsi; Vass, Godemèche; Bastos, Celestino, Hora; Bjelanović. Subs from: Kapetanos, Godemèche, Pedro, Maftei, Stăncioiu, Nuno, Valente

Officials (All ITA)
Referee: Daniele Orsato
Assistant referees: Mauro Tonolini, Massimiliano Grilli
Additional assistant referees: Andrea De Marco, Mauro Bergonzi

Form
United: WLLWWW
Cluj: WWWWWD

Head to Head
Last 10: United 1, Cluj 0, Draw 0
Overall: United 1, Cluj 0, Draw 0

Prediction
1-0

Preview: Galatasaray AŞ v United

November 20, 2012 Tags: , Matches 40 comments

Welcome to … Moss Lane! Not quite, although Sir Alex Ferguson is seemingly taking Manchester United’s trip to face Galatasaray in Turkey about as seriously as an under-21 fixture in Altrincham. The Scot’s party of 21 players departed Manchester on Monday morning containing no fewer than seven men yet to make an appearance in European football. With United comfortably qualified for the knockout stages, Ferguson is bent on resting his first team ahead of key domestic fixtures to come.

Ferguson’s selection threatens to turn a frequently hostile atmosphere, and sometimes antagonistic match, into the dead rubber it has become for the visitors. Yet, with three teams locked together in Group H, there is nothing lifeless about the occasion for Galatasaray, for who victory would be a major stepping stone out of the group and into the round of 16.

Meanwhile, Sir Alex’ selection is unlikely to go down well in Braga, who did not benefit from such generosity of United’s spirit over the recent double-header, although the Reds’ defending almost made up for it. But if the Scot’s men are to get anything out of the 3300 mile round trip, they will do so without Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David De Gea and Robin van Persie.

Indeed, it is out with the old and in with the inexperienced, as Nick Powell, Larnell Cole, Davide Petrucci, Ryan Tunnicliffe, Joshua King and Marnick Vermijl come into the squad. Two, Tom Thorpe and Sam Johnstone, are yet to make their club debuts in any competition.

“We don’t consider the young players a gamble,” said Ferguson in defence of his squad selection.

“What we do consider is our reputation and we have to be fair to the other teams in the group. When we discussed the team for tomorrow we had to give serious consideration to how the media and the public would react, so we had to think hard about the team we picked. It will be a good occasion to see our young players introduce themselves to the public and the media. Our aim is to win.”

Galatasaray AŞ v Manchester United - Champions League, Ali Sami Yen Spor Kompleksi - Tuesday 19 November 2012, 7.45pmInjuries continue to play a part in Ferguson’s choices, with captain Nemanja Vidić and Shinji Kagawa on the sidelines through injury until Christmas. Yet, Phil Jones traveled with the squad to Turkey and could start in his first United match of the season. Meanwhile, Darren Fletcher should feature in just his fifth game this campaign, as the Scot makes a slow and painful recovery from a chronic bowel complaint.

“It’s a big day for Phil Jones,” said Sir Alex.

“He’s been out all season but he’s done enough training now to make sure his fitness is okay. I’m looking forward to bringing him back. Phil’s had different types of injuries. He had concussion, he had a rib injury, but he’s young so he’s still to develop physically in terms of his body. He’s only 20 years of age so there’s plenty of time for him.”

“Shinji Kagawa’s progress has been quite slow. He’s not started any outside work and we’re looking at another four weeks away, which is disappointing.”

Still, while United may be without a rash of keys players the home support is likely to keep the atmosphere hot. It will be a severe test of United’s inexperienced squad.

The old Ali Sami Yen is no longer in use, although Gala’s sparkling new Türk Telekom Arena will play host to more than 50,00 spectators. The plush surroundings have seemingly had no ill-effect on the local’s capacity to generate noise. Cimbom’s fans were recorded at more than 130 decibels last season – about the same as a jet at 100 feet.

However, Fatih Terim’s side has taken just a point from two Group H home fixtures to date and has not won at home in Europe
in five matches, since beating Panathinaikos in the Europa League in December 2009. Gala lost 3-1 to Karabükspor at the weekend.

Still, with a youthful opponent in town, Terim is well aware of the opportunity for progression this season in a match the 59-year-old coach is billing as key to Gala’s season.

“I don’t understand why the media are focusing on Manchester United’s Istanbul squad,” said the former international striker.

“We shouldn’t dwell too much on it because it’s still Man Utd who you’re facing in the end. It’s clear that this match is one of the most important games in Galatasaray’s history. Hopefully, tomorrow we’ll see a historic night at Ali Sami Yen Spor Kompleksi. I am sure that the fans will be putting a lot of effort into their preparations for the game and will support us until the final whistle.”

That whistle is unlikely to bring the drama of United’s first encounter with Galatasaray in the Turkish capital – a night on which Ferguson’s side was knocked out of Europe and Eric Cantona saw red. Yet, with a full-house and electric atmosphere, it is likely to be another unforgettable experience – at least for those youngsters taking part.

Match Details
Galatasaray AŞ v Manchester United – Champions League, Ali Sami Yen Spor Kompleksi – Tuesday 20 November 2012, 7.45pm

Possible teams
Galatasaray (4-4-2): Muslera; Eboué, Nounkeu, Cris, Balta; Altıntop, İnan, Melo, Çolak; Elmander, Bulut. Subs from: Ceylan, Zan, Nounkeu, Sarıoğlu, Riera, Yılmaz, Kurtuluş, Baytar, Amrabat, Baroš, Yıldırım.

United (4-2-2-2): Lindegaard; Vermijl, Jones, Wootton, Buttner; Cleverley, Carrick, Fletcher, Anderson; Hernandez, Welbeck. Subs from: Johnstone, Thorpe, Rafael, Petrucci, Cole, King, Macheda, Tunnicliffe, Powell, Young.

Officials (All ESP)
Referee: Carlos Velasco Carballo
Assistant referees: Roberto Alonso, Juan Carlos Yuste Jiménez
Additional assistant referees: César Muñiz, Carlos Del Cerro Grande
Fourth official: Roberto Díaz Pérez del Palomar

Form
Galatasaray: DWWWDL
United: WWLWWW

Head to Head
Last 10: Galatasaray 0, United 2, Draw 3
Overall: Galatasaray 0, United 2, Draw 3

Prediction
1-1

Preview: SC Braga v United

November 6, 2012 Tags: , Matches 67 comments

There are few more atmospheric stadia than Estádio Municipal, Braga, carved as it is into the face of Monte Castro quarry. Three sides every bit a tight, sometimes intimidating venue; the other sheer rock with an almost tragi-comic large screen perched into the cliff face. Still, there is no more picturesque place at which to secure qualification for the Champions League knock-out stages – an achievement that Manchester United is seeking at SC Braga in Portugal on Wednesday night.

With nine points from three victories to date, albeit from only marginally impressive performances, United could progress with just a point on Wednesday night. That, however, is a result unlikely to impress manager Sir Alex Ferguson, with the 70-year-old Scot bent on securing top spot in group X. After United’s failure to qualify last season Ferguson’s over-compensation is the least reaction Reds could expect.

Still, Ferguson will make several changes to the side that beat Arsenal at Old Trafford on Saturday in preparation for the weekend fixture with Aston Villa. It is a familiar story in Europe, but unlike last season’s competition United has largely circumvented punishment for rotating the squad in the group stages.

“I’ll be making some changes for Wednesday, no doubt about that,” confirmed Ferguson on Tuesday.

“Obviously we want to win on Wednesday. If we get a win, that’s better as we want to make sure we qualify first. If we win, we’re through to the next phase and that’s the most important part. Braga have a good record at home, but I think we can get the win.

“The most important thing is to go through. In order to win the Champions League we have to play at a really high level. Real and Barcelona are the main contenders, and Borussia’s also one of them. I hope we can be together with them as well.”

Ferguson, however, will still be without injured defensive duo Phil Jones and Nemanja Vidić, while Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes have been left in Manchester to rest. H

SC Braga v Manchester United – Champions League, Estádio Municipal – Wednesday 7 November 2012, 7.45pmHowever, Chris Smalling is now back in full-time training and traveled with the squad to Portugal. The 22-year-old in unlikely to start after missing the opening three months of the season with a broken metatarsal, but may feature at some point.

“Fletcher got a little bit of a cold on Sunday, and there’s no point taking him travelling with a cold,” explained Ferguson. “Scholesy, for the last few games I’ve been resting him to freshen him up a little bit. I’m just taking care of an old man, that’s all!

“Phil Jones will start training with us next Monday which is good news – he is making really good progress now. Chris Smalling is with the party and will be involved tomorrow. Those two are outstanding young defenders and it will give us a fantastic squad to take on all our challenges

“That is really good news because as we know, since the start of the season, we’ve been operating on the borderline in terms of certain defenders having to play all the time.”

The Scot is likely to bring Anders Lindegaard back into goal for David de Gea, while Nani, Anderson, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernández will all hope to see some action in Portugal’s third city.

Meanwhile, Braga will feel confident of taking something from the game after going two goals up at Old Trafford last month. The Portuguese outfit, which reached the Europa League final last season, eventually succumbed to United’s second-half pressure, but not without testing the Reds’ porous defence first.

Braga coach José Peseiro is without Paulo Vinícius and Paulo César who are both unavailable with thigh injuries, although Douglão returned to action at the weekend and could start.

“We need to have some possession but must not attack too hard,” concedes Peseiro.

“It’s not even worth thinking that we can crush United. We showed we could cause them some problems in the first game. The way we switch from defence to attack is very important, but the most important thing is to be consistent.

“Even if they change their lineup, their team is top quality because they have more than one good player in every position. If they win tomorrow, they’ll qualify for the next phase, so we know what’s in their minds.”

Indeed, qualification a day after Ferguson celebrated his 26th year in charge of United will be all the present the Scot needs. In a ceremony at Old Trafford later this month Ferguson will be presented, in his honour, the latest statue erected at the old stadium.

The Scot replaced Ron Atkinson at Old Trafford in November 1986, ending United’s 26 year wait for a league title in 1993. Five FA Cups, four league cups and 11 more championships have followed.

How Ferguson would love to add just one more European title to the two Champions Leagues he has already won in what could yet be his final season in charge.

Match Details
SC Braga v Manchester United – Champions League, Estádio Municipal – Wednesday 7 November 2012, 7.45pm

Possible teams
Braga (4-4-2): Beto; Baiano, Coelho, Dougão, Elderson; Custódio, Viana, Mossoró, Barbosa; Zé Luís, Éder. Subs from: Quim, Micael, Amorim, , Capela, Micael, Djamal, Alan, Custódio, Guilherme, Michel, Carlão.

United (4-2-3-1): Lindegaard; Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Buttner; Anderson, Carrick; Nani, Rooney, Welbeck; Hernández. Subs from: De Gea, Smalling, Evra, Cleverley, Giggs, Nani, Valencia, Powell, Young, van Persie.

Officials (all GER)
Referee Felix Brych
Assistant referees Mark Borsch, Stefan Lupp
Additional assistant referees Felix Zwayer, Guido Winkmann
Fourth official Mike Pickel

Form
Braga: WDWLWW
United: WWWWLW

Head to Head
Overall: Braga 0, United 1, Draw 0

Prediction
0-2

Preview: United v SC Braga

October 22, 2012 Tags: , Matches 86 comments

Manchester United welcomes Sporting Braga to Old Trafford on Tuesday, with the Reds chasing a win that should ease qualification into the Champions League knock out stages. United has been far from fluent in the competition to date, but victory over last season’s Europa League finalists will take Sir Alex Ferguson’s side to within a point of guaranteed progression. After last season’s pre-Christmas exit qualification alone will be an achievement.

However, Ferguson is set to rotate his resources for the visit of José Peseiro’s outfit, with Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra certain to miss out as United’s manager seeks to rest players ahead of next weekend’s fixture with Chelsea. Indeed, the 70-year-old Scot could make eight changes from the side that beat Stoke City 4-2 at the weekend, with Ashley Young, Anderson, Alexander Büttner and perhaps even Scott Wootton coming into the side.

Ferdinand will not feature, but United’s manager, Monday, backtracked on an implied threat to punish the 33-year-old defender for refusing to wear a Kick It Out t-shirt at the weekend. Blamed on a miscommunication, Ferguson says that Ferdinand will return for United’s Premier League clash at Stamford Bridge next Sunday.

Aside from the inevitable changes, Ferguson may reintroduce the diamond formation that brought the Reds victory over Cluj and Newcastle United in recent outings. It is a system, claims the Scot, that plays to his squad’s strengths, if not United’s history.

“If it turns out as a consistent team selection from me, playing a diamond, it is revolutionary because we’re going against our history,” admitted Ferguson on Monday

“I think the level of the game in England and Europe is such a high level now that making yourself unpredictable is going to be a strength. Teams will have to think if we are going to play two wide players or the diamond because we have players capable of doing both things.

“Players like Shinji Kagawa and Tom Cleverley can play very well in the type of matches the diamond offers. And of course in Nani, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, I’ve got really good wide players also. It is difficult – we have had some success playing with the diamond. The history of the club is always to play with wide players, particularly at Old Trafford, so I have a decision to make.”

Manchester United v SC Braga - Champions League, Old Trafford - Tuesday 22 October 2012, 7.45pmBack into the side comes Shiji Kagawa, after the Japanese play-maker missed out on United’s victory over Stoke. The former Borussia Dortmund midfielder has failed to recreate the early season burst of form over the past month, with the Scot’s tactics and formation rarely aiding the £16 million acquisition. Ferguson is again likely to deploy the 23-year-old out of position against Braga.

“The initial reason for taking him was his ability to play behind the strikers,” said Ferguson “In the last couple of games he has played middle to right – not a problem for him because he still has the ability to create.”

Meanwhile, Young could feature after missing two months with a knee injury. The former Aston Villa winger has made just one start in the campaign, but will make the bench as a minimum against Peseiro’s side. However, there may once again be no room for Nani in Ferguson’s wingerless system. Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie could drop to the bench, with Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernández in line to start up front.

Despite the plethora of changes Ferguson insists he is taking the Portuguese opponents seriously after United was accused of complacency in last season’s campaign.

“We’ve kept players back who have been playing well – Cleverley, Kagawa – so I wouldn’t call that underestimating Braga,” added Ferguson.

“Braga are better away from home, [they] showed that beating Galatasaray [2-0]. It’s not easy going to Turkey. In the modern European game counter-attack is the issue, so tomorrow hopefully we can deal with that.”

Whatever the formation, history points to victory for Ferguson’s side. United has never lost at home to Portuguese opponents, although Peseiro’s side is unbeaten in seven matches away from home in European competition. It’s quite a turn-around for Os Arcebispos who lost 6-0 to Arsenal in the club’s first Champions League encounter. With more than a touch of  coincidence the thrashing matched that handed down by Tottenham Hotspur FC in the 1984/85 UEFA Cup first round.

Yet, Braga also boasts a health record against English opponents, going five games unbeaten since defeat to Arsenal, including a 1-0 aggregate victory over Liverpool in the 2010/11 Europa League.

Peseiro, like compatriots José Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas, enjoyed a limited playing career in the minor leagues before a low-key start as a manager. Begining his coaching career at Nacional, Peseiro took the Madeira club from the third division to the Primeira Liga in three seasons. For a season the 52-year-old worked under Carlos Quieroz at Real Madrid before returning to Portugal when the former United assistant manager was sacked by the Bernabeu hierarchy.

“We’ve got good players and a good team too, so we’re going to be trying to win,” said Peseiro, who will have been encouraged by United’s unspectacular wins over Cluj and Galatasaray.

“If we can’t win then a draw is a good result too. Sir Alex Ferguson praised Braga very highly only a few days ago, so he doesn’t underestimate us.”

Plenty of changes may say otherwise. Then again, Ferguson probably wouldn’t have it any other way.

Match Details
Manchester United v Sporting Clube de Braga – Champions League, Old Trafford – Tuesday 22 October 2012, 7.45pm

Possible teams
United (4-4-2): Lindegaard; Rafael, Wootton, Evans, Buttner; Fletcher; Anderson, Cleverley, Kagawa; Welbeck, Hernández. Subs from: De Gea, Keane, Carrick, Giggs, Scholes, Nani, Valencia, Young, Rooney, van Persie.

Braga (4-2-3-1): Beto; Baiano, Douglao, Vinícius, Elderson; Custodio, Viana; Alan, Mossoró, Barbosa; Eder. Subs from: Quim, Haas, Coelho, Amorim, Paulo César, Rivera, Michel, Micael, Ismaily, Salino, Custódio, Zé Luís, Douglão, Carlão.

Officials (All Serbia)
Referee: Milorad Mažić
Assistant referees: Milovan Ristić, Igor Radojčić
Additional assistant referees: Milenko Vukadinović, Miodrag Gogić

Form
United: WWWLWW
Braga: WWWWDW

Head to Head
First meeting

Prediction
3-0

Preview: CFR 1907 Cluj v United

October 1, 2012 Tags: , Matches 60 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson left a rash of players at home as Manchester United chase a second win in this season’s Champions League group stage. Fresh from defeat to Tottenham Hotspur at the weekend, and a drab victory over Galatasary on match-day one, Ferguson flew with a stripped-down squad to Romania’s third largest city on Tuesday. Victory over CFR 1907 Cluj will bring the Reds to within four points of likely qualification for the knock-out stages of this season’s competition.

It promises to be a testing fixture against the Romanian champions, who knocked out FC Basel in the Champions League preliminary round this season. Basel’s victory over United in Switzerland last season consigned the Reds to the Europa League for the first time since 2005.

Ferguson will be without midfielders Antonio Valencia, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick, together with a trio of defenders for the tie at the atmospheric Stadionul Dr. Constantin Rădulescu. Valencia is out with a bruised ankle, while Giggs and Carrick are each suffering from a virus.

Scholes has been rested after playing 90 minutes against Spurs on Saturday and should return for United’s Premier League trip to Newcastle United next weekend.

However, Ferguson will at least be able to field two fit centre-halves after Jonny Evans recovered from a dead leg sustained against Spurs at the weekend. The Northern Irishman will partner Rio Ferdinand in central defence, with captain Nemanja Vidić, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones all on the sidelines.

Despite – or perhaps because of – the threadbare squad Ferguson says United will show The Railwaymen every respect on Tuesday night. United beat compatriots Oțelul Galați home and away last season.

“They’ve beaten Basel twice and Basel knocked us out so we need to give them every respect,” said Ferguson of Tuesday’s opponents.

“CFR are a team who defend quickly and get plenty of bodies behind the ball. Their main strength is the counterattack, as they showed against Braga. Counterattacking is very important in European football these days. Their strongest point is they have got three points. They play us tomorrow and then two games against Galatasaray. They need seven more points from five games and they will qualify.”

CFR 1907 Cluj v Manchester United, Champions League, 2 October 2012Ferguson kept his squad back at Carrington a day longer than is usual prior to Champions League fixtures after the Reds lost 3-2 at home to Spurs at the weekend. United’s performance in the first half of the reverse was arguably the worst of the campaign to date. United rallied in the second period, but failed to turn the match around for a second Premier League defeat of the season.

Indeed, in conceding three against Andre Villas-Boas’ north Londoners United has now shipped twice or more for the third time this season. It is a defensive record that will again be tested in Cluj-Napoca – the unofficial capital of Transylvania.

“We made the decision to train at home because most of the time when you train abroad you can’t do anything because everyone is watching,” added Sir Alex.

“Training at Carrington this morning allowed us to do things around picking the team and tactics. Our second half against Spurs on Saturday was probably our best performance of the season, but you have to be concerned with the way we lost the goals. We were well off the pace of the game.”

Ferguson is likely to recall Wayne Rooney for the clash, with the Scouser central to a dominant attacking performance in the second period against Tottenham. The fixture may also offer Darren Fletcher a second start of the campaign, especially given Ferguson’s need to juggle limited resources in central midfield. At least one of Tom Cleverley and Anderson should also feature.

Meanwhile, Cluj coach Ioan Andone has Vasile Maftei available after the defender served a one-game suspension on match-day one. However, Ciprian Deac, Adam Vass, Bakary Sare, and Ronny all miss out with injury.

Much traveled Andone is with his 13th club as a manager in a career that has taken the former international defender from Romania, to Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria and Cyprus. Once considered one of Romania’s best defenders, Andone played in Netherlands and Spain before taking up coaching as a 33-year-old.

In seven seasons as a player with Dinamo, Andone won two league titles and three Romanian Cups as well as reaching the European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-finals. Andone joined CFR for a second spell as manager in April 2012, claiming the league title a month later.

“I met United when I was coach of Dinamo Bucureşti, but that was two different teams, two different scenarios,” said Andone of the 2004 preliminary round fixture that United won 5-1 on aggregate.

“Now CFR have a few players with experience in the Champions League, and we have the whole of Romania behind us. I hope our enthusiasm will make a difference. If we manage to score, we will have a chance. I don’t think you can speak about fear against United.”

Indeed, after Galatasaray ran United so close at Old Trafford on match-day one there should be little to fear from Ferguson’s men, who have failed to excel in Europe’s premier competition for more than a year.

Yet, Cluj has shown mixed form in the campaign to date, beating Basel twice in the preliminary round and then SC Braga on match-day one, but slipping to sixth in Liga I Bergenbier. Cluj beat Gloria Bistriţa 5-1 on Saturday, but has suffered two domestic defeats to date this season.

Match Details
CFR 1907 Cluj v Manchester United – Champions League, Stadionul Dr. Constantin Rădulescu – Wednesday 2 October 2012, 7.45pm

Possible Teams
Cluj (4-5-1): Felguerias; Pinto, Cadu, Rada, Sepsi; Mureşan, Alberto, Sougou, Bastos, Camora; Kapetanos. Subs from: Mincă, Maftei, Alberto, Sepsi, Bjelanović, Piccolo, Valente, Godemèche, Pedro, Aguirregaray, Nicoară, Buş, Sougou

United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Fletcher, Cleverley; Nani, Rooney, Kagawa; Van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Büttner, Wootton, Keane, Powell, Anderson, Macheda, Welbeck, Hernández.

Officials (all Spain)
Referee: Alberto Undiano Mallenco
Assistant referees: Roberto Díaz Pérez del Palomar, Jesús Calvo Guadamuro
Additional assistant referees: Carlos Gómez, Javier Estrada Fernandez

Form
Cluj: DWWLWW
United: WWWWWL

Head-to-Head
This is the first meeting between the sides

Prediction
0-2

Preview: United v Galatasaray AŞ

September 19, 2012 Tags: , Matches 85 comments

There is a bittersweet irony in Manchester United kicking off the club’s 2012/13 Champions League season barely 24 hours after reporting more than £20 million of lost revenue in the final quarter of the financial year. The poor Q4 figures, published on Tuesday, come on the back of United’s failure in last season’s Champions League, where Sir Alex Ferguson’s side was knocked out at the Group Stage and then failed to progress past Athletic Bilbao in Europe’s second tier competition.

Ferguson’s side begins the new campaign with the Scot promising an end to the complacency that wrecked United’s European season a year ago – with the manager setting the tone from the start with a much changed side against Benfica in the opening match last September. Indeed, Ferguson should be able to select close to his strongest side, fitness permitting, with Robin van Persie and potentially Shinji Kagawa returning for the Reds.

But it is in defence, where United suffered with injuries last season, that the Reds’ 70-year-old manager is hoping for better luck in the forthcoming European campaign. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić, rarely fit at the same time last season, should both start at Old Trafford on Wednesday, while Patrice Evra will return to the starting side if fit.

“I think the key is to keep the defenders fit,” said Ferguson on Tuesday.

“I mean that. We had a rough ride with defenders being injured in the last two or three years. If they remain fit that gives us a better opportunity. At the moment with Smalling and Jones out long-term, I’m down to three centre-backs -Vidic, Ferdinand and Evans. If I could be guaranteed two would be fit for the rest of the season, I’d gladly take that right now. But that’s not been the case over the last few seasons. It’s a key issue for us and we can’t hide it. I just hope we get a bit of luck in that respect.”

Yet, United’s downfall last season was equally self-inflicted in addition to rank bad luck. Frequent rotation and an almost unforgivable slackness cost United heavily, especially in key games against Benfica and Basel. It’s an error that Ferguson has promised United will correct, with the manager having previously provided surety that he will pick the strongest possible side. Time will tell on both fronts.

“Finishing off games has to be a driving force for us,” admitted Sir Alex.

“I think we all agree we were careless in two of the games at home last season. The Basel game was the one where the criticism quite rightly lies. We were 2-0 up and playing well and then got careless in the second half and ended up drawing 3-3. That ended up knocking us out, really. We had to go there [to Basel] and get a result and we ended up chasing our tails.”

Manchester United v Galatasaray AŞ - Champions League, Old Trafford - Wednesday 19 September 2012, 7.45pmMeanwhile, with Ferguson seeking a strong start to the European campaign van Persie and Kagawa, if fit, will return to the side, while goalkeeper David de Gea could start after giving way to Anders Lindegaard in the past two Premier League matches. Elsewhere Ferguson will pick two from three of Antonio Valenica, Ashley Young and Nani. Saturday’s hero Paul Scholes is likely to be rested.

Galatasaray arrive as Turkish champions having won the Süper Lig by a single point last season – and Fatih Terim’s men have started the new campaign positively with two victories from three matches.

“We’ve watched a lot of video analysis of them. I think there are several points about them – they have two players we know about in Emmanuel Eboue and Johan Elmander who played in English football. They have two good central midfielders in Felipe Melo and Selcuk Inan and a centre-forward to look out for in Umut Bulut. That’s a good name for a centre-forward!

“I know from experience it’s never easy against Turkish teams. It will be a very close game tomorrow.”

Games against Galatasaray have rarely been anything else, with United having emerged victorious just once from four matches with the Turkish giants. Goals from David Beckham and Roy Keane helped the Reds to a 4-0 victory in the last meeting between the two sides in 1994, but calamitous draws with Gala a year earlier knocked United out of the European Cup on the away goals rule, with Eric Cantona famously sent off in a tumultuous match in Istanbul.

“It’s one of those memories that will always stick with you,” Ryan Giggs told ManUtd.com.

“When we arrived at the airport, there were all the banners and thousands of fans screaming at you. There were things thrown at us when we were driving away on the coach, fans outside the hotel chanting all night making sure we didn’t get any sleep and people phoning the hotel rooms. It had everything.

“But they were a good team and a good club. It is a fantastic game to be involved in, especially away from home. It is an atmosphere a lot of the lads won’t have witnessed before. The atmosphere back then was something I tried to enjoy as much as I could.

“The fans had been in the ground for hours and hours so it was buzzing 90 minutes before kick-off. We were stood in the middle of the pitch watching the fans chant. It was one stand to another. It was a brilliant atmosphere if I am honest but obviously the game didn’t pan out the way we wanted. They were a good team then and they will be a good team now.”

Meanwhile, Turkish manager Terim will be without injured captain Tomáš Ujfaluši, who will be sidelined until the new year after undergoing surgery to repair cruciate ligament damage he sustained to his left knee in training.

Terim, a former central defender, played for Galatasaray for over a decade and represented Turkey 51 times before going into coaching with MKE Ankaragücü and then Göztepe. He was appointed Turkey coach in 1993 and led the side to Euro ’96. In a hugely successful career, Terim has won four league titles with Galatasaray and the 2000 UEFA Cup.

After spells in Italy and again with the national side Terim returned for a third spell in charge of Galatasaray in May 2011, steering Cimbom to a first Süper Lig title in four years.

But for all the nous in the away dugout United will surely hold too much firepower for a more limited opponent. Then, supporters were confident last season as well. Too confident as it turned out – to United and the bean counters’ cost.

Match Details
Manchester United v Galatasaray AŞ – Champions League, Old Trafford – Wednesday 19 September 2012, 7.45pm

Possible Teams
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick; Valencia, Kagawa, Nani; Van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Evans, Büttner, Powell, Giggs, Anderson, Scholes, Fletcher, Valencia, Macheda, Young, Hernández, Welbeck

Galatasaray (4-3-3): Muslera; Eboue, Cris, Kaya, Balta; Melo, Inan, A Yilmaz; B Yilmaz, Elmander, Amrabat. Subs from: Altıntop, Zan, Gülselam, Riera, Nounkeu, Baroš, Bulut, Özçal, Ujfaluši, Birinci, Kurtuluş, Baytar, Çolak, Amrabat, Sarıoğlu, Yıldırım

Officials
Referee: Wolfgang Stark (GER)
Assistant referees: Jan-Hendrik Salver, Mike Pickel
Additional assistant: referees Tobias Welz, Christian Dingert

Form
United: LWWW
Galatasaray: DWW

Head-to-Head
Overall: United 1, Galatasaray 0, Draw 3

Prediction
3-1

Fletcher back as Bébé misses out

September 5, 2012 Tags: , , Shorts 7 comments

Manchester United’s Premier and Champions League lists, confirmed on Tuesday, include Scottish captain Darren Fletcher, with the 28-year-old seemingly on the verge of a return to first team action this season. However, £7.4 million Portuguese misfit Bébé misses out on European action as Sir Alex Ferguson named his squads for the first half of the season.

Fletcher has not appeared for United since 22 November 2011, and played just 10 times last season after taking an extended break from football. The Scot is recovering from a long-term affliction with ulcerative colitis, although there is no date for the midfielder’s return to the first team. Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson was able to include Fletcher in both squads – due to his ‘home grown’ status – without impacting on any other player’s place in the squad.

The Scot has appeared twice for United’s Under 21 side this season, with Ferguson reporting Fletcher has gained weight and strength over the summer.

Meanwhile, Bébé – Tiago Manuel Dias Correia – has remained at the club this season after United failed to find a loan spell for the player. The former Vitória de Guimarães player will be available for domestic duty in the unlikely event Ferguson calls on his unique services.

Bébé spent last season on loan with Besiktas in Turkey, although a knee injury curtailed the season to just a handful of appearances. In the meantime Portuguese police continue to investigate the deal – a transfer in which more than 30 per cent of the fee went to agent Jorge Mendes.

United’s European party includes a 25 man ‘A’ squad and eight on the ‘B’ list, although Sir Alex can add to the secondary list at any point proving the player meets UEFA’s criteria. Players are eligible for the B list if born on or after 1 January 1991, and if they have been registered with the club for two years without interruption.

Meanwhile, Premier League rules demand that United registers a 25 man squad – United’s is 24 strong – with no more than 17 players who do not fulfil the ‘Home Grown Player’ criteria. Home Grown players are those who, irrespective of nationality or age, have been registered with an FA affiliated club for three seasons prior to their 21st birthday. Under 21 players are those born on or after 1st January 1991, and United can include any number over and above the 25 man squad limit. Phil Jones, for example, is not included in United’s 24 man Premier League squad, but is eligible as an Under 21.

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Complacency no more after Euro draw

August 31, 2012 Tags: Opinion 27 comments

It is one of football’s more sopophiric banalities; that an entity – be it player, manager, or heavily indebted multi-national corporation – must ‘hold his/her’s/its hands up’ in the face of glaring error. Yet, it is a cliché, if one must be used, appropriate to Manchester United’s European performance last season. After all, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team certainly didn’t do anything useful with its collective feet.

Not that United’s great Scot will admit his error, of course, in setting a complacent tone from the off – an accent that his squad was unable to rid through 10 games in two failed competitions as the Reds crashed out of both the Champions and Europa Leagues in embarrassing fashion. No more  “stupid mistakes” says United’s 70-year-old manager, even with United facing up to one of the competition’s easier groups.

Indeed, in facing Braga, Galatasaray and CFR Cluj in this season’s Champions League group stage there will be a stern test of Ferguson’s resolve in promising to play his strongest team in the competition. The temptation to rotate heavily will surely remain on the cusp of Ferguson’s thinking. After all, United’s manager made ten changes for last season’s opener away at Benfica.

If Ferguson’s attitude in making heavy and regular changes in last season’s European competitions proved a forebear for his players’ complacency, then surely the same mistake cannot be made twice? Time will tell.

“After the experience of last year, we don’t want to make any stupid errors this time,” admitted Ferguson after Thursday’s draw.

“We will play our strongest team to make sure we get through. We have the experience of playing against Galatasaray in the past and we will always remember the ‘Welcome to Hell’ banners. So it’s always a difficult type of match.

“We have drawn Portuguese clubs a number of times over the past few years – the likes of Benfica, Sporting and Porto – so we have the experience of playing in Portugal on many occasions. Braga are one of the improving teams in that country. Obviously, we’ve never played Cluj before.”

The irony, of course, is that United could hardly have hoped for a better draw in terms of quality. Galatasary’s forward partnership of Johan Elmander and Milan Baroš is unlikely to strike fear into Red hearts, while Braga finished third in the Portuguese Primeira Liga last season.  Romanian Champions Cluj has lost 50 per cent of its Champions League games to date.

Yet, the draw will require United to fly more than 7,000 miles over the course of the group stage – one of the longest possible travel burdens, although having trawled around three times further this summer Ferguson’s squad is well used to the joys of the jet-set.

But travel has a mental and physical affect that will prompt rotation in Europe, the Premier League or both. Cynics might suggest Ferguson is likely to go back on his Euro-word. Rant couldn’t possibly comment.

“Of course, you always want short journeys for the group games, but it hasn’t happened in this draw,” confirms midfielder Paul Scholes, who is likely to be rested for much of the Euro campaign.

“We know it won’t be easy – it’s always difficult to get through the group stages as we found last year. But as long as we win our home games and try and pick up a couple of away wins we should be okay. We were disappointing at Old Trafford last season and conceded too many goals.”

It is a pattern that Ferguson cannot afford his team to repeat, although the Reds certainly need some better fortune with defensive injuries.

And while draw may have been kind, the fixture list poses plenty of questions. United will play away matches against Liverpool, Newcastle United, Aston Villa, Chelsea and Manchester City after Champions League group ties. Expect some tough games for the Reds during the autumn and early winter.

Meanwhile, whatever team Ferguson selects fans will enjoy away days at new Euro venues at least, with United having never met Portuguese side Braga, nor Romanians Cluj. Braga, Portugal’s third biggest city, is ‘European Youth Capital 2012’, although travelling Reds are more likely to sample the old town tavernas rather than the youth-related cultural, social, and political events in the year-long festival!

Cluj, Romania’s second-city, will host United for the first time at the tight, but wonderfully named Stadionul Dr. Constantin Rădulescu. The tie marks another step in the remarkable ascent of the club, which was playing third tier football just a decade ago.

Memories of United’s now infamous visits to Istanbul in 1993 and 1994 will be recalled in the clash against Galatasaray in late November. Eric Cantona was sent-off against the Turks during United’s elimination from the Champions League in 1993, with referee Kurt Rothlisberger later accused of taking a bribe from a Galatasary director.

Fun though those trips may be, success in this year’s competition is paramount, not only for the fans, but the team and United’s bean-counters too. After all, the club lost around £20 million in potential revenues by crashing out of Europe’s premier competition early last season.

It’s just one of many reasons supporters will be closely following Sir Alex’ promise to play his strongest team in Europe this year.

Champions League fixtures
Galatasaray (H) 19 September
Cluj (A) 2 October
Braga (H) 23 October
Braga (A) 7 November
Galatasaray (A) 20 November
Cluj (H) 5 December

Champions League Groups
Group A: Porto, Dynamo Kiev, PSG, Dinamo Zagreb.
Group B: Arsenal, Schalke, Olympiacos, Montpellier.
Group C: AC Milan, Zenit St Petersburg, Anderlecht, Malaga.
Group D: Real Madrid, Manchester City, Ajax, Borussia Dortmund.
Group E: Chelsea, Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus, Nordsjaelland.
Group F: Bayern Munich, Valencia, Lille, BATE Borisov.
Group G: Barcelona, Benfica, Spartak Moscow, Celtic.
Group H: UNITED, Braga, Galatasary, Cluj