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Injury crisis ends as Reds warm to Europa League

February 19, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 14 comments

Manchester United’s victory over Ajax in Amsterdam on Thursday came almost 27 years after the club’s last win in the competition. Defeats to Russian outfits Rotor Volgograd and Torpedo Moscow in the intervening years came as the club increasingly focused on European glory in the continent’s premier competition. Indeed, while the positive messages are to be heard loud and clear from United’s hierarchy about the Europa League this week, there is little escaping the club’s isolation. Kick off at 6pm on a Thursday, in a competition that nobody at Old Trafford really wanted to be involved in, is proof enough of that seclusion, if any is needed.

Perhaps this showed in United’s first half performance at the Amsterdam ArenA on Thursday; one of such sluggish impotence that Ferguson was moved to angry post match criticism of his side, despite the Reds’ 2-0 win. The Scot’s outfit may well warm to the Europa task as the competition nears its dénouement, with aggregate victory over Ajax now surely assured, but mentally perhaps, this was no easy opening.

“I think the result was better than the performance,” Ferguson admitted, after United scored twice in the second half to put away the crisis stricken Dutch.

“The first half was disappointing. It was difficult to get the rhythm and speed to the game. Ajax made it very difficult for us with their system. They pressed the ball very well. In the second half we had to wake up. We made it difficult for ourselves.

“I just think we didn’t speed up our game enough. I know they pressed the ball very well and left their centre-backs to make most of the progress with the ball, but we needed to play quicker. The second half we improved, made some good opportunities and deserved to win. It’s a good result. You can’t complain too much when you win 2-0 away from home.”

Lack of a trailblazing performance notwithstanding, there were positives for Ferguson’s side, with the manager now able to stretch his European squad at Old Trafford next Thursday night. The Scot will surely call in his squad’s fringe, those players needing minutes and, perhaps, those of a younger persuasion. In a competition that frequently squeezes preparation time for the following weekend’s Premier League fixture, Ferguson will be grateful for an easier ride in the coming week.

Higher on the United manager’s agenda though will be an apparent easing of the Reds’ injury crisis, which at times has seen 11 senior players on the treatment table. Captain Nemanja Vidić and midfielder Darren Fletcher are unlikely to play again this season, despite positive early prognosis for the former. Meanwhile, there is no return in sight for errant Brazilian Anderson, nor Michael Owen.

But the Scot will be delighted to include Ashley Young, Nani, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling in his matchday squad on Thursday. Each has played a key role at times this season, but suffered from injury or loss of form in recent months. Young’s goal in an otherwise insipid performance was a bonus. The former Aston Villa man will certainly need to improve on his sharp decline in form before injury struck two months ago. Meanwhile, Nani shanked his first corner behind for a goal kick. It rarely got better from there – far from the Portuguese’s best performance in a Red shirt.

Then there was Jones, who put in another bombastic performance at right-back, adding to Ferguson’s options and – if no further clarity on the subject – to the debate over which of the Scot’s men should be deployed at right-back.

None of this was Thursday’s highlight, although genuinely positive. Indeed, result, returnees and even a Red invasion of Amsterdam’s less than salubrious establishments pale into comparison to Tom Cleverley’s hour in a United shirt. The 22-year-old midfielder has played just 58 minutes since 10 September, but returns as the clichéd ‘new signing’ Ferguson was denied by the Glazer family’s parsimony in the winter transfer window. For this alone, Ferguson could embrace the Europa League in the past week.

Cleverley was safe in his passing, but struggled to impose his game on Ajax’ youthful team. That will come with time, fitness and confidence – and nobody in United’s squad can match the youngster’s pass-and-move midfield style.

“I’m delighted for Tom Cleverley,” said 19-year-old Jones, who completed the full 90 minutes in Amsterdam.

“He’s a terrific talent. We missed him on the pitch while he was out. But I saw him every day in the gym so I know his attitude’s fantastic. He deserved to be out there tonight. Ashley’s also terrific. He’s come back from injury and done really well and I was pleased for him to get our first goal tonight.”

In a season when injuries have seemingly not rained, but poured, bright news would never come without a downside; every silver cloud has a touch of darker lining. Indeed, injury to Antonio Valencia, United’s most dangerous player since the New Year turned, comes as a significant blow to the Reds’ hopes. Injury is likely to keep the Ecuadorian on the sidelines for a month in which United faces not only Ajax, but Tottenham Hotspur and two further European matches.

“He has a hamstring injury unfortunately. It will be four weeks,” Sir Alex confirmed on Thursday.

“It’s a blow to lose Valencia tonight, but bit by bit, we are getting stronger with Nani and Ashley Young coming back. Tom Cleverley has played a bit of football tonight and Phil Jones has played a full game which is good for us. Chris Smalling was on the bench but will play in the return match at Old Trafford next Thursday.”

Those returning players will now face two games against Lokomotiv Moscow or Athletic Bilbao next month, unless Ajax pulls off an unlikely three goal victory at Old Trafford. The Russians’ 2-1 victory in Moscow sets up a tense return in Basque country next week, with Ferguson, his players and United’s supporters likely to place faith in the Spaniards’ ability to turn the tie around.

Assuming United make it through it will be the first time since the Reds beat Dundee United by the odd goal in nine that United has progressed in the Europa League or its predecessor. That result came in December 1984, two years before Ferguson’s tenure at Old Trafford began. And while the feeling of goodwill about the current incarnation of the tournament currently resides with an opponent’s location, and a lessening injury crisis, more victories such as that last Thursday may turn the remaining doubters around.

Poll: do you care about the Europa League?

February 15, 2012 Tags: , Polls 12 comments

Manchester United kicks off the Europa League campaign against Ajax on Thursday, in what promises to be the glamour tie of the round. With 3,000 United fans heading out to Amsterdam it is a tie for supporters, but having crashed out of the Champions League in December, very much second best for Sir Alex Ferguson’s tie. Yet, with United out of the Carling and FA Cups already, the Europa League represents a realistic shot at silverware this season.

Ferguson claims that United will take the competition seriously, with a strong squad heading out of Manchester on Wednesday morning. But what about the fans… do you care about the Europa League?

Do you care about the Europa League?

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Reds venture into the new for Ajax tie

February 15, 2012 Tags: , Matches 67 comments

Manchester United makes an appearance in Europe’s second tier competition for the first time since losing to Rotor Volograd in September 1995. Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has not missed a Champions League campaign since Paul Scholes and Peter Schmeichel scored in the 2-2 draw with the Russian outfit at Old Trafford. The draw, in the then UEFA Cup, sent United tumbling out at the first round stage on away goals.

Ferguson’s team returns to the now revamped Europa League having suffered a truly dreadful Champions League group campaign. Whether an issue of complacency, injuries or Ferguson’s side simply not being good enough, the Scot’s side is now firmly relegated to Europe, division two following defeat to FC Basel in Switzerland before Christmas.

Yet, Ajax versus United is the glamour tie of the round – one that, on paper at least, should be taking place in the continent’s premier tournament. Adding to the intrigue, the clubs have not met at any competitive level since 1976, although United has played in pre-season tournaments at the Amsterdam ArenA. It is a venue that Wayne Rooney will not recall with any fondness after seeing red on his last visit.

United won that 1976 tie 2-1 on aggregate, with Lou Macari and Sammy McIlroy scoring the goals at Old Trafford to take the Reds through. United would lose, heavily, to Juventus in round two.

Ajax versus Manchester United, Europa League, Amsterdam ArenA, 16 February 2012Meanwhile, the modern United squad travels without long-term injured Nemanja Vidić, Darren Fletcher, Anderson and Michael Owen. Anders Lindegaard, whose ankle injury may be worse that originally thought, is also left behind in Manchester, as are Ryan Giggs and Patrice Evra, who are rested, and Dimitar Berbatov, who has a minor knock.

“Ryan Giggs and Dimitar Berbatov are injured,” said Ferguson.

“We rested Patrice Evra. It was an emotional weekend for him so I think this is the right thing to do. It’s a strong squad we’ve got here. Ryan got a knock in the first half against Liverpool on the ankle and Dimitar got an injury in training on Sunday.

“It’s better to leave [Berbatov] behind. It’s not a serious injury – he’d be available if I asked him to play – but I thought it better not to risk it, so I left him behind.”

However, Ferguson has brighter injury news more generally, with Tom Cleverley back in the squad following three months out. The 22-year-old midfielder was an unused substitute against Liverpool in the Premier League last weekend, but could make an appearance for the first time since October in Amsterdam. Meanwhile, Ashley Young, Nani, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones all back into the squad to face the Dutch giants.

It all makes for a far stronger squad than some feared – or, indeed, hoped for – travelling the short distance to Amsterdam. Indeed, Ezekiel Fryers and Paul Pogba are the only regular reserve team players in Ferguson’s squad, with United not facing a Premier League fixture at the weekend. Whether Ferguson deploys more reserves in a week’s time, with Norwich City to follow less than three days later, is an open question.

“I’m definitely treating it seriously,” claimed Ferguson on Monday.

“The great thing about Thursday is we don’t have a game next Saturday so I can play my strongest team and will play my strongest team. The thing is to look forward to it. It’s still European football and still a good standard. It’ll be a full house too with a great stadium and a great pitch. They’re not having a great time at the moment but I think, playing United, they will be well motivated for it and always play nice football too.

“Winning any European trophy is significant. Irrespective of those who have won the three trophies before it is important for us, with our own history, to win tournaments all the time. We threw it away in our home game against Basel and were unlucky against Benfica. That caught us short and we suffered for it.

“Now players are coming back I am sure we can combine the Premier League and Europa League so I would certainly try to play my strongest team in each round now.”

Ferguson may bring Young and Nani back for the game, although the 70-year-old is unlikely to make wholesale changes in the away leg from the side that beat Liverpool on Saturday. Mexican striker Javier Hernández could start after spending much of the campaign injured or sat on the bench. Danny Welbeck’s form, in addition to head and angle problems have made for a difficult second campaign at Old Trafford.

Yet, Hernández’ unselfish commitment to the cause ensures that the 23-year-old remains in Ferguson’s thoughts for the Premier and Europa League campaigns despite Welbeck’s rise. Although Rooney is likely to start in Amsterdam, Hernández and Welbeck could be paired together for the return leg next Thursday.

“Both teams have come out of the Champions League and they both have a great history,” said Hernández.

“We have won a lot of European Cups between us, so it will be a very interesting game. We need to get used to the fact we are not in the Champions League this season. And the history of Manchester United is such that it doesn’t matter which competition you are in, we want to win it, no matter who else is in it, or whether it is an important trophy for other teams.”

“It [the Mexican’s second season] has been a little bit frustrating because I have been injured a lot. But there are some things you can’t do anything about. I am happy and I am still enjoying it. It is a privilege to play for Manchester United, whether things are going good or bad, I want to keep that attitude.”

“Danny Welbeck is a brilliant player. He is only young but he went to Sunderland and did great things there. Then he came back here and has been unbelievable. That doesn’t upset me, competition is normal at a club like this. You need to be at your best to help the team. That is the most important thing.”

Meanwhile, Ajax is a club and squad in crisis. On the pitch the team, under Frank de Boer’s management, continues to struggle in the Eredivisie, currently lying sixth and out of contention for a Champions League place next season. In the boardroom more than 18 months of wrangling between Johan Cruyff and the club’s council has concluded, temporarily one suspects, with Louis van Gaal being removed as CEO. The argument surrounds Cruyff’s call to employ former club legends such as Wim Jonk to revitalise Ajax’ one-famed youth academy.

Ajax, based on the youthful ‘total football’ approach, has won all three of Europe’s club trophies –  it is a feat that United cannot match, with the Reds never having emerged victorious in the current tournament. However, the hosts do not boast an enviable record against English opponents in recent yeras. The Amsterdam-based club has not won in seven matches against English opposition, with a record now reading three draws, four defeats since victory against Nottingham Forest in the 1980/81 European Cup semi-final.

Despite the malaise in Amsterdam, the current Ajax generation does offer some talent, with all eyes on Danish teenager Christian Eriksen, along with sought-after defender Jan Vertonghen, and forward Kolbeinn Sigþórsson.

“There’s a lot of attention on the young kid, you know, the Danish boy,” said Ferguson on Monday.

“We’ll see what he’s like and obviously everybody is going to be watching him. Ajax have always been capable of producing great players, that’s the great thing about that football club. When you think back over the years to the likes of Johan Cruyff and Ruud Krol, they were some players.”

United scouts have watched 19-year-old Eriksen this season, but whether the club is interested, let alone can afford, to make a summer bid is as yet untested. After all, while Ferguson believes United is “not far away” from Barcelona’s standard on the pitch, Spanish clubs’ finances are an altogether different sport. United slipped further behind the Spanish giants in Deloitte’s, albeit flawed, ‘money league’ this year. The reduced income on offer in the Europa League will not help close that gap.

Match facts
Ajax versus Manchester United, Europa League, Amsterdam ArenA, Thursday 16 February 2012, 6pm.

Possible teams
Ajax (3-4-3): Vermeer; Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Koppers; Anita, Enoh, De Jong, Eriksen; Sulejmani, Bulykin, Özbiliz. Subs from: Aissati, Lodeiro, Blind, Cillessen, Ebicilio, Lukoki, Van Rhijn, Denswil Veltman, Klaassen, Ligeon.

United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Fabio; Valencia, Carrick, Scholes, Young; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Amos, Smalling, Jones, Fryers, Nani, Park, Cleverley, Pogba, Welbeck.

Form
Ajax: WLDLLW
United: WWLWDW

Officials
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (Italy)
Assistant referees: Andrea Stefani, Gianluca Cariolato
Additional assistants: Christian Brighi, Gabriele Gava
Fourth official: Andrea Gervasoni

Europa League starts here

February 13, 2012 Tags: Opinion 19 comments

Manchester United ventures into new territory this week in a competition that nobody at the club, from owners, to fans via the manager, actually wants to take part in. But the Reds will break new ground nonetheless in the Europa League, featuring in the tournament for the first time since its revamp. Adding to the intrigue this week, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side will play Dutch giants Ajax for the first time, in a competitive fixture, during Ferguson’s reign when the sides meet at the Amsterdam ArenA on Thursday.

A bloated successor the UEFA Cup, the Europa League consists – post-Christmas – of 32 teams, eight dropping out from the Champions League, and another 24 having qualified via the group stages. Despite the rebranding, the Europa League has become a tournament that few of Europe’s largest clubs relish competing in; a second tier competition from which all the glamour, and much of the money, is missing.

Twice UEFA has reorganised the competition in the past decade, eliminating the Cup Winners’ Cup and two-legged final, and then adding extra rounds and a group stage. The Europa League now consists of three qualifying rounds, a group stage and four two-legged knock-out rounds, before a one-off showpiece final. To win the tournament, United will play nine fixtures, while Fulham, knocked out of this year’s competition at the group stage, played 14 matches.

While the competition’s credibility was eroded as the Champions League expanded to include non-Champions in the 1990s, UEFA’s decision to parachute clubs failing in the senior tournament further reduced the Europa League’s relevance. Moreover, the prize money on offer is significantly less than that in UEFA’s big competition. It adds up to a tournament for which there are few dedicated supporters outside UEFA.

Should United win, with the final taking place at the National Stadium in Bucharest, the club will earn less than half a similar run in the Champions League would bring. It goes without saying that television, and its accompanying money, requires the most attractive games and biggest stars.

Meanwhile, fans’ excitement broadly matches those of the broadcasters; it’s a fact recognised by United, with the club reducing members’ ticket prices and eliminating the much-despised automatic cup ticket scheme for the competition. Those travelling to Amsterdam this week do so with the city’s many other forms of entertainment in mind, in addition to the football on offer. Those stuck at home on Thursday will enjoy Channel 5’s coverage, with kick off at 6pm.

Unusual teams and times are an unfortunate reflection of the European company United now keeps.

And then there is the question of whether Ferguson will take the competition seriously. After all, while the manager has already stated his intention to win the tournament, the Scot will certainly not pursue that goal at the expense of Premier League glory.

“I’m definitely treating it seriously,” said Sir Alex said on Monday.

“The great thing about Thursday is we don’t have a game next Saturday so I can play my strongest team and will play my strongest team. The thing is to look forward to it. It’s still European football and still a good standard.

“I think it’s amazing that, in the 55 years we’ve been involved in Europe, we’ve never played Ajax. When you think of all the draws that have been made, the quarter-finals and the groups, we’ve never drawn them. It’ll be a full house too with a great stadium and a great pitch. They’re not having a great time at the moment but I think, playing United, they will be well motivated for it and always play nice football too.”

The United coach may change his story when Ajax arrive in Manchester in 10 days time, just 60 hours before the Reds play Norwich City in the Premier League. Indeed, those close to Ferguson’s coaching team readily admit that United will ‘experiment’ in the tournament. The Reds’ 38 man squad includes a large number of youngsters and fringe players, many of which may see action if United progress.

Moreover, in Ajax United is facing a European giant now stripped of its potency. While the Dutch club has never possessed the financial clout to compete with the continent’s best, the famed youth academy once produced a string of talent. This is no longer the case, with Ajax’ finest plundered at an ever more youthful age.

Then there is the boardroom strife that has seen two former greats at loggerheads over the club’s administration. Johan Cruyff was successful last week in having Louis van Gaal removed as Ajax’ ceo, after claiming in court that the former Bayern Munich coach was appointed without his consent. Cruyff and van Gaal have clashed, among other issues, over Ajax’ youth academy, with the former seeking to appoint a clique of retired club greats such as Dennis Bergkamp and Wim Jonk.

On the pitch Ajax, under Frank De Boer’s management, has slipped to sixth in the Eredivisie in what is fast becoming a disastrous campaign. Mind you, the Dutch club was hugely unfortunate to lose out on qualification for the knock-out stages of the Champions League following Olympique Lyonnais’ 7-1 victory over Dinamo Zagreb in the final group match.

Yet, the side still contains some talent, including the sought after defender Jan Vertonghen, forward Kolbeinn Sigþórsson and Danish teenager Christian Eriksen. Indeed, the latter is a player watched by United’s scouts, along with those from many major European clubs. The bidding in the summer is likely to rise far beyond a fee that United is prepared to pay – at least before the Glazer family’s long-mooted IPO is launched.

“There’s a lot of attention on the young kid, you know, the Danish boy,” Ferguson added.

“We’ll see what he’s like and obviously everybody is going to be watching him. Ajax have always been capable of producing great players, that’s the great thing about that football club. When you think back over the years to the likes of Johan Cruyff and Ruud Krol, they were some players.”

Ajax has nobody of Cruyff or even Krol’s talent today. But then again neither, arguably, does United. Welcome to Europe, division two.

United Europa League Squad

Ferguson’s squad includes 13 names on ‘Player list B’, which is those players under 21 and having trained with the team for at least three years.

Goalkeepers: David De Gea, Tomasz Kuszczak, Anders Lindegaard, Ben Amos*, Sam Johnstone*.

Defenders: Patrice Evra, Phil Jones, Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, Nemanja Vidić, Fábio da Silva*, Rafael da Silva*, Ritchie De Laet, Marnick Vermijl, Michael Keane*, Sean McGinty*, Ezekiel Fryers*.

Midfielders: Anderson, Ryan Giggs, Ji-sung Park, Michael Carrick, Nani, Ashley Young, Paul Scholes, Tom Cleverley, Darren Fletcher, Antonio Valencia, Paul Pogba*, Mathew James*, Davide Petrucci*, Larnell Cole*.

Forwards: Michael Owen, Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernández, Danny Welbeck*, Will Keane*.

* Player is on list B.

Draw – Round of 32

Porto v Manchester City
Ajax v UNITED
Lokomotiv Moscow v Athletic Bilbao
Salzburg v Metalist Kharkiv
Stoke City v Valencia
Rubin Kazan v Olympiakos
AZ Alkmaar v Anderlecht
Lazio v Atlético de Madrid
Steaua Bucharest s Twente Enschede
Wisla Krakow v Standard de Liege
Viktoria Plzen v Schalke
Braga v Beşiktaş
Udinese v PAOK
Trabzonspor v PSV
Hannover 96 v Club Brugge
Legia Warsaw v Sporting CP

Draw – Round of 16

Salzburg/Metalist Kharkiv vs Rubin/Olympiakos
Legia Warsaw/Sporting vs Porto/Man City
Steaua/Twente vs Plzen/Schalke
Wisla/Standard de Liege vs Hannover/Club Brugge
Stoke/Valencia vs Trabzonspor/PSV
AZ Alkmaar/ Anderlecht vs Udinese/PAOK
Lazio/Atletico vs Braga/Beşiktaş
Ajax/UNITED vs Lokomotiv/Athletic Bilbao

Welcome to hell: the Europa League

December 15, 2011 Tags: Opinion 27 comments

The draw for the Champions League round of 16 will take place in UEFA’s Nyon headquarters on Friday. It is a tournament from which Manchester United will be conspicuously absent. But lurking in the vast auditorium, suffering Gianni Infantino’s wooden delivery along with millions of TV viewers, will be United’s ceo David Gill. The Reds’ chief will take the “punishment,” as Sir Alex Ferguson called it, of watching the party to which his club is no longer invited. And then comes the sideshow: the draw for the much maligned Europa League.

A bloated successor the UEFA Cup, the Europa League consists – post-Christmas – of 32 teams, eight dropping out from the Champions League, and another 24 having qualified via the Europa League group stages. It has become a tournament that few of Europe’s largest clubs relish competing in; a second tier competition from which all the glamour, and much of the money, is missing.

Reorganised in 2004 and then again in 2009, the Europa League now consists of three qualifying rounds, a group stage and four two-legged knock-out rounds, before a one-off showpiece final. What the competition cannot generate in media income, it seemingly makes up for in longevity. Indeed, Fulham, knocked out of this year’s competition at the group stage, played 14 matches, including Thursday night’s fateful draw with Danish side Odense at Craven Cottage. To win the tournament United must play a further nine matches, with the final taking place at the National Stadium in Bucharest.

While the competition’s credibility was eroded as the Champions League expanded to include non-Champions in the 1990s, UEFA’s decision to offer a parachute to clubs failing in the senior tournament further reduced the Europa League’s perceived relevance. Moreover, the prize money on offer is significantly less than that in UEFA’s big competition. It adds up to a tournament for which there are few dedicated supporters outside UEFA.

Aside from Friday’s draw, the real intrigue for United supporters is how seriously Sir Alex will take the competition. After all, amid the disappointment of losing to Basel a fortnight ago, the temptation must surely be for United’s manager to rotate his resources in Europe. The Premier League is now Ferguson’s principal focus, although some might argue, with considerable justification, that rotation is the reason United is in this situation to begin with.

In truth, Ferguson is highly unlikely to field his strongest side until the tournament reaches its semi-final stage. Yet, the Scot, stung by Michael Platini’s defence of his baby, back-tracked on seemingly critical observations about UEFA’s second-tier competition. The Scot last week claimed, somewhat disingenuously, that “the Europa League is a good competition and a strong competition.”

“You only need to look at the teams left in it,” added the 69-year-old. “It’s a competition we want to win. We’re in it and we’ll try to win it.”

Time will tell how truthful that statement is. After all, Tottenham Hotspur have hardly taken the competition seriously this year. One wonders why United might buck that trend.

However, should the Reds survive three rounds with a side likely to contain a number of fringe players United supporters may well feel a tingle of excitement. After all, this is a competition that the club has never won. Worse still, Liverpool is a three times winner of a tournament that used to garner far more respect.

And once United is paired with that unknown Eastern European minnow in the round of 32, Gill will kick into action, raising the usual post-draw platitudes of “excitement” and “challenges”. Fans, of course, may think differently, especially when Basel is drawn in the Champions League. Then it might kick home just what United will be missing in the second half of the season.

Who could United draw?

Dropping out of the Champions League this season with United are Manchester City, Ajax, Valencia, Olympiacos, Porto, Trabzonspor and Czech side Viktoria Plzen. Perhaps only the final pair will relish the additional games and minimal income.

Meanwhile, joining the eight Champions League failures will be those already qualified from the group stage, including some familiar names: PAOK, Standard Liège, Hannover 96, PSV Eindhoven, Legia Warsaw, Sporting Lisbon, Stoke City, Athletic Bilbao, Metalist Kharkiv, Braga, Atlético Madrid, Schalke 04, Twente, Anderlecht, Lokomotiv Moscow, Lazio, Beşiktaş, Steaua Buscharest, Salzburg and Wisła Kraków.

With a final round of matches on Thursday night, four further teams could still qualify: Club Brugge or Birmingham City, Tottenham Hotspur or Rubin Kazan, AZ Alkmaar or Austria Vienna, Udinese or Celtic.

And the draw could mean a tough fixture for United or, worse still, a lengthy journey to Eastern Europe. Ferguson will certainly not relish a tie with Lazio, Atlético Madrid or Lokomotiv Moscow, for example.

However, United cannot face seeded teams, group winners or sides from the same national association in this round, ruling out City, Olympiacos, or Valencia, who are seeded former Champions League teams. Standard Liege, PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon, Beşiktaş, Athletic Bilbao, Metalist Kharkiv, Schalke, Twente or Anderlecht are each group winners. Meanwhile, Ferguson’s side will not play Stoke or Spurs, in the unlikely event that the Londoners qualify.