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Manchester United boss hoping to atone for past sins

By Sam Wallace

It is nine years since Sir Alex Ferguson lost his last Champions League semi-final in Germany, an embarrassing elimination on away goals to Bayer Leverkusen that, like so many of Manchester United’s worst moments over the years, ended in recriminations and the call for change.

missed chances still grate with a fired-up fergieReady for battle: Manchester United’s players shape up last night in Gelsenkirchen, knowing that Raul (above) is a major threat to their hopes of making the Champions League finalBY SAM WALLACE

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

Ferguson himself had controversially postponed his retirement months earlier. Juan Sebastian Veron, his £28m signing the preceding summer, had performed woefully in the second leg in Germany, playing out of position behind the main striker.

Roy Keane later described the result as a “total disaster” and there were rumours that some United players had been critical of Veron after the game.

As usual there were predictions of a summer clear-out. There were fears about the advancing years of key players such as Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes and the wisdom of Ferguson’s decision to continue past his 60th birthday. Nine years on and four league titles later, not to mention the Champions League win in 2008, and it is fair to say that elimination to Leverkusen in 2002 was not quite the disaster Keane or anyone else predicted.

Last night at the Veltins Arena it was the same Ferguson larking around on the pitch while his players went through their stretches.

Giggs and Scholes are still going strong and both are potential starters tonight against Schalke in United’s Champions League semi-final first leg, while on the domestic front, United are on course for a 19th Premier League title. English football’s most successful club of modern times just keeps on rolling.

Indeed, United’s presence in the Champions League semi-finals is taken as something of a given these days.

They have reached that stage in four of the past five seasons and tonight will be the seventh Champions League semi-finals since United first competed in the competition under Ferguson in the 1993-94 season. Thus far he has won three and lost three. The question is: when it comes to the Champions League is Ferguson’s glass half-full or half-empty?

Last night in Gelsenkirchen, Ferguson admitted that he was envious that United had not won as many Champions League titles as those at the top of the tree.

In fact, Ferguson successfully named each club that has won more than United’s three European Cups — Real Madrid, Milan, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Ajax, in that order.

It was evidence again that Ferguson is thinking about his legacy at United. In the Premier League he is seven points away from the title that will take them past Liverpool’s 18.

This season the draw has been kind to United. Schalke, 10th in the Bundesliga, are eminently beatable and should United lose there will be the lingering feeling this was a major opportunity missed — perhaps more so than any other semi-final defeat.

Ferguson knows that although he is far too politic to say so about Schalke. The club habitually fall short and have not won the league since 1958 despite their huge following making them German football’s equivalent of Manchester City or Newcastle United.

As usual, much will rest on the performance of Rooney who may well play at the head of a 4-3-2-1 formation and without his regular partner of recent times, Javier Hernandez. Ferguson was typically unwilling yesterday to avoid going into the low points that his star player has endured over the past 12 months and from which he now seems to be emerging.

“Good players create their own platforms in the sense of the importance of their performance,”

Ferguson said. “Wayne, more than anyone, realises that performances are the thing that he will always be judged on because there is an expectation of the boy.

“You see that he has stepped up to the mark for that — and proved himself entirely.”

Ferguson insisted that he had no idea that this stadium was the same one in which Rooney had been sent off during England’s World Cup quarter-final defeat to Portugal in 2006 and even tried to convince his audience he had not even been watching the game.

Later, as Ferguson addressed his players before training there was a roar of laughter from the group and the United manager emerged with his arms around Rooney’s shoulders. It made you wonder if Ferguson had brought up that infamous red card for the amusement of his squad.

United have been here many times before. Even Rooney, just 25, is playing in his fourth Champions League semi-final at the club. But Ferguson sees United as a Champions League-winning team, not a semi-final team. Just as Sir Matt Busby saw United as a European Cup-winning team when he took them into the competition for the first time in 1956, the first of six semis they reached under him.

Ferguson was typically dismissive of the impressive BBC Busby Babes drama United broadcast on Sunday night, which he said he did not watch. “I don’t think we need any TV programme to portray the history of our club.”

The history of United is bound up with European football but it is not always bound up with as much success as you might expect — which is why there is no margin for error against Schalke.

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