| 17.5°C Dublin

Fergie won't ignore home truths

IT is a cliché for a ground to be described as a fortress but in terms of European football, Old Trafford has been a Harlech Castle, a Masada or a Fort Knox.

Manchester United played 40 years of European football before they lost a match beneath its stands and Alex Ferguson's mantra of "win our three home games" was the standard formula for progress through a Champions League group.

Lately, however, United have begun to stumble on their European nights at Old Trafford. In the past three seasons they have managed only three wins in nine group matches and those victories came against Wolfsburg, Bursaspor and Otelul Galati -- all of whom were competing in the Champions League for the first time.

Tonight's opponents, Galatasaray, have rather more experience, having knocked United out of the Champions League as long ago as 1993, an occasion famous for the "Welcome to Hell" banners in Istanbul. Given that this match is in Manchester, "Welcome to Hale" might be more appropriate now.


When, in December, Ferguson sat tersely in the press room at Basle and tried to explain why, for the first time in six years, Manchester United had fallen at the Champions League's first hurdle, he did not blame their defeat in Switzerland for it. The campaign, he said, had been squandered at Old Trafford.

"I think we all agree that we were careless in two of our games at home last season," said Ferguson as he prepared for his 22nd tilt at the European Cup.

"We were in a winning position against Benfica and we drew 2-2. I thought we played well in that match but the Basle game is one where the criticism quite rightly lies.

"We were 2-0 up, playing very well, and then got really careless in the second half and ended up with a 3-3 draw that really, in effect, knocked us out.

"We don't want to be as careless as we were last year and the team I choose will reflect that. Over the past few years the group stages have been very straightforward for us, so it gave me the opportunity to play a lot of young players but I'll be playing a more experienced team now."

United's record of four finals under Ferguson is good, but not the outstanding one he would like. Asked whether he thought his side was good enough to win it this time round, he replied: "I think the key for us is if we can keep the defenders fit.

"I really mean that because we have had some really rough rides with defenders being injured for the last two or three years but, if they remain fit, it definitely gives us a better opportunity.

"I think without doubt that has to be the driving force this year. If you think back to our game against Everton, being 4-2 up and then drawing 4-4 -- we can't have that happening again."

The loss of Nemanja Vidic, who wrecked his knee in the 2-1 defeat by Basle that finished United in last season's Champions League, was unquestionably a key factor in the late-season collapse that cost Ferguson another Premier League title.


"That's what I am saying about defenders and needing them fit," he said. "Over the last few years we haven't enjoyed that. At the moment with Chris Smalling and Phil Jones out long term, I am left with three centre-backs -- Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans. If I were guaranteed two of those would remain fit for the rest of the season, I'd take that gladly right now."

The first European side to win at Old Trafford were Turkish. Fenerbahce's victory as Ferguson marked his 10th anniversary at United with a series of disastrous results led to his wife greeting him on the doorstop with a jokey chant of: "Fergie for the sack!"

Ferguson was, however, concerned by more ill-judged chants against Liverpool fans revelling in being "victims" that had marred Saturday's 4-0 win over Wigan.

"They could hear it in the directors' box and David Gill (the chief executive) was very disappointed," he said. "It was a minority and in our society there is always a minority that wants to be heard."