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Saturday 16 December 2017

The season starts here for United

Ferguson draws on experience as Devils' defining week begins with German exam in Munich

IT is that time again. What was the phrase Alex Ferguson coined for it all those years ago? Squeaky-bum time. And whether his context was of squirming in one's seat or of something far more colourful, he would not have it any other way.

The next eight days will not necessarily define Manchester United's season outright, but they will go a long way towards doing so: Champions League quarter-final first leg against Bayern Munich in the Allianz Arena this evening, Premier League showdown with Chelsea at Old Trafford on Saturday lunchtime, second leg against Bayern a week tomorrow.

Three matches of huge significance, with barely a moment to draw breath between them.

It is the time of year that gets Ferguson's juices flowing, when he feels 68 going on 38. Barbs are fired at rival managers and at rival teams, but his own players are reminded, constantly, of the prizes that lie tantalisingly within reach -- and of the danger that one faltering step could turn a season of promise into one of underachievement, regrets and recriminations.

In the media theatre at the Allianz Arena last night, familiar messages were spelt out. "It's a massive week for us," Ferguson said. "In eight days we have two big games against Bayern and a great game against Chelsea. You have to enjoy it and at the same time you have to know it's crucial. One mistake: you hope you don't make any mistakes and you hope they will happen in your favour to win games for you, as happened for us (away to Bolton Wanderers) on Saturday. It's going to be an exciting week."

Ferguson has never hidden his belief that, when it comes to periods such as this, luck plays a huge part -- the rub of the green, the luck of the draw, the fortune that so often seems to favour the brave.

United have had a reasonable sprinkling of it in recent weeks -- by Ferguson's admission, they were grateful not to be placed in the same half of the Champions League draw as Barcelona -- and, as they arrived in Munich yesterday to hear that Frank Ribery, like Arjen Robben and Mario Gomes, is struggling to be fit for Bayern, it was tempting to feel that things are falling into place for the English team.

Louis van Gaal, the Bayern coach, suggested yesterday that the advantage lies with United, saying that "we are not yet a level-one team like Manchester". Bayern have lost their past two Bundesliga matches, away to Eintracht Frankfurt and at home to Stuttgart, and have been in indifferent form for several weeks, but Ferguson believes that, even if none of the aforementioned trio starts and Bastian Schweinsteiger will miss out through suspension, a difficult assignment is in prospect for United.



Clever

"Louis van Gaal is a clever man," Ferguson said. "I don't pay any attention to that (the comment about United being favourites). I haven't seen all their games this season, but I have seen quite a few and have watched a lot of video footage over the past two days. They have had one or two bad results of late, but that doesn't mean they're a bad team.

"The motivation of playing a quarter-final and the first tie at home will be big for them. We are not thinking even for a moment that this is an easy game."

A decade ago, this was one of the most compelling rivalries in European club football. Between September 1998 and March 2002 the two clubs met seven times in the Champions League, with United's only victory coming when it mattered most, when stoppage-time goals from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer secured an unforgettable victory in the 1999 final.

That was the ultimate example of squeaky-bum time. Bayern dropped their guard in the final minutes of what should have been a victorious season and United, with that famed never-say-die spirit, took advantage.

At this stage of that season, as they geared up for a quarter-final against Inter Milan, there were few indications that history was in the making, yet United, at times through sheer force of will, achieved the impossible, winning the Premier League, the FA Cup and finally the Champions League.

"It's obviously a game between two clubs of great history," Ferguson said. "It does give an edge in the game, I feel. I was surprised to discover we had never beaten them in a European tie, apart from in Barcelona, so we would like to change that. I respect Bayern Munich. Teams with a certain history play with pride.

"You have to contend with that. But our team is in good form and hopefully we will get a result."

Ferguson picked out the form of Wayne Rooney, who will be fit after resting his bruised foot on Saturday, but also emphasised the importance of his wide players in "penetrating and creating opportunities for players like Rooney".

For all the compliments that have been bestowed on Rooney in recent months, the form of Antonio Valencia and Nani on the wings has been a significant factor in United's upturn, as has the energy of Darren Fletcher and Park Ji Sung. Equally important has been the return to the team of Edwin van der Sar and Rio Ferdinand.

With Gary Neville and Patrice Evra also in top form, Ferguson's team, and indeed their season, is taking shape.

Let their standards slip over the next eight days, though, even for a moment, and the picture could change dramatically.

© The Times, London

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