Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Manchester United playing Bayern history

Sir Alex Ferguson
Sir Alex Ferguson

It comes to something when a team visiting Bayern Munich are guarding against complacency, but that will be the reality when Manchester United face the four-time winners in the Allianz Arena tonight.

Bayern could be without four leading players for the first leg of this Champions League quarter-final and one of Sir Alex Ferguson's main concerns is ensuring his team do not underestimate them.

Ferguson said his team were playing their best football of the season following the return of Rio Ferdinand, Edwin Van der Sar and Nemanja Vidic, but he was quick to point out: “We must not get carried away and think for a moment this could be an easy game.

“I have great admiration for them as a club. That is what we are playing. We are playing history. A team with history has a certain pride and we have to remember that.

“This game is a difficult task, they have a lot of good players and a great coach. We have to be aware of that.”

Four of those ‘good players' are unlikely to start: Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Mario Gomez due to injury and Bastien Schweinsteiger because of suspension.

That still leaves Miroslav Klose and Mark van Bommel to be wary of, but there could be a lot of unfamiliar names in Louis van Gaal's side tonight, so much so he is likely to rush back Argentine centre-half Martin Demichelis for his first match since Michael Ballack broke his jaw in last month's international friendly.

Van Gaal has conceded United are favourites but Ferguson immediately dismissed the ‘favourites' tag.

“He's a clever man,” he said of Van Gaal, an assessment the latter would surely agree with. But it was hard not to suspect Ferguson was talking Bayern up when he admitted: “I haven't seen all Bayern's games this season but we have watched video footage over the last two days. They have had one or two bad results recently, but that does not mean they are a bad team. Teams with history have a certain pride, we have to contend with that on the night.”

Bayern have lost their last two matches, enabling Schalke to usurp them as Bundesliga leaders; more significantly star players Robben and Ribery have been struggling.

The Dutch winger, who turned down Ferguson for Chelsea some years ago, has been in superb form this season but he may not be risked due to his sore groin.

An ankle injury means Ribery — a Ferguson target last summer until Bayern priced him at £70m — is likely to be on the bench alongside £30m striker Gomez (calf).

By contrast Ferguson confirmed Rooney and Rio Ferdinand, both rested on Saturday, were fit. Not that Ferguson, always suspicious of opponents, was taking Bayern's injury list as Gospel.

The Scot said he would plan to face Bayern's best XI, and adapt if Robben and/or Ribery did not figure. That suggested the adaptable Giggs may get the nod ahead of Nani, allowing Ji-Sung Park to switch from his new central position to a marking role if either of Bayern's wingers played.

The presence of Rooney and Ferdinand in the travelling party makes a difference though, given the pair have shrugged off foot and groin problems respectively that kept them out of Saturday's four-goal thumping of Bolton.

There is an element of that advantage being countered by the knowledge that Chelsea are now resting up, preparing themselves

for a Premier League blockbuster at Old Trafford on Saturday.

Bayern will then have to be faced again as the twin peaks of an unprecedented fourth consecutive title and third Champions League final on the bounce edge ever closer.

Little wonder Ferguson's competitive juices are running hot.

“It is a massive week for us,” he said.

“In the space of eight days, you have two great games against Bayern and another against Chelsea.

“You have to enjoy it but it is also the time of year when it is crucial.

“It is going to be an exciting week and you hope not to make any mistakes.”

Ferguson stressed the need to get an away goal, dipping into the memory banks to recall his first visit to Bavaria, with Aberdeen 27 years ago.

“We drew 0-0 and everyone was delighted apart from me,” he added. “I sensed danger. We managed to go through, but Bayern scored twice at Pittodrie.”

As well as underlining how long Ferguson has been operating at this level the recollection showed how much game has changed.

The days when a provincial club from a small TV market like Scotland could compete with the likes of Bayern are long gone.

Van Gaal, thinking perhaps of the Ajax team he won the Champions League with 15 years ago, but was then broken up by predators, called for “a salary cap on the American model so everybody would be playing with the same budgets. With all the conditions the same, then we could really play.” It is a nice idea, but in practice, devilishly difficult to impose.

But for injuries tonight would, however, be a meeting of equals — Bayern, said Van Gaal, are the fifth richest club in Europe.

Instead United can put the tie to bed, just as long as they do not assume they will.

Bayern Munich v Manchester United: Key battles

Daniel Van Buyten v Wayne Rooney

Two barrel-chested titans collide as Belgian hardman Van Buyten will be charged with marshalling a defence with its hands full against Rooney and company. The former Manchester City loanee is a firm favourite at Bayern and has done well in difficult circumstances following the departure of Lucio to Inter Milan. Sir Alex Ferguson may well deploy Rooney as a lone striker and Van Buyten would arguably prefer to face the bigger Dimitar Berbatov than the tricky, effervescent genius of the Scouse superstar.

Thomas Muller v Darren Fletcher

If anything, Fletcher's stock rose due to his absence from last year's Champions League final in Rome. Post-match inquests led to some suggesting the comprehensive defeat by Barcelona, orchestrated by the Catalans' midfield pairing of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, may have been different a different story had the effective Fletcher been there to get amongst them. Tonight he faces an emerging talent in Muller, an inventive and cultured player at home anywhere in midfield or even in a supporting role up front.

Franck Ribery v Gary Neville

One of world football's hottest properties, injury-prone genius Ribery has been outshone by the similarly fragile Arjen Robben this season. The Frenchman has spent much of his time on the sidelines while Robben has seized his opportunity. However, with Robben now injured, Ribery will be Bayern's main attacking threat despite lacking full fitness himself. While Neville's best years are behind him, Ribery is not the player he was a year ago and so an intriguing clash awaits.

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