IN THE domestic arena, as the Premiership approaches its denouement, Manchester United have history on their side. Though the odds may be against Sir Alex Ferguson's men, observers are reluctant to write them off averring: "They have been there before. They know what is required".
In Europe tonight, however, history is against them. The English champions go into the first-leg of their European Cup quarter-final against Deportivo La Coruna aware, not only that the Spanish side have already defeated them home and away this season, but in a dozen attempts United have never beaten a Spanish team on their home ground.
They are not the only ones to struggle in Iberia. Since the Champions' League began a decade ago, Spanish clubs have been unbeaten in 17 home fixtures against English opposition. It is with respect Ferguson notes: "Spanish football is the strongest in Europe."
Not that the United manager believes his team cannot buck the trend at La Riazor stadium. Referring to the autumn defeats against Deportivo, he said yesterday: "We could have won both games. They came at a time when we were getting punished for lots of individual errors. Now we're playing a lot better. We went ahead in the first game and had opportunities to kill the match off and were let down by a couple of errors in the second."
United have not quite eradicated those errors, but it is only coincidental that the most recent culprit, Juan Sebastian Veron, is absent. The Argentinian midfielder, who was at fault when Middlesbrough won at Old Trafford 10 days ago, has been left behind to see a specialist over his heel problem. Ferguson, who denied reports of a training ground row between Veron and his captain, Roy Keane, said he was not expected to be out for more than a fortnight.
In Veron's absence, Ferguson has a choice between bringing Nicky Butt into a five-man midfield or playing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer alongside Ruud van Nistelrooy in attack. The manager having talked glowingly of Solskjaer yesterday the betting money is on Butt. …