THEIR DEFEAT by Liverpool more than a fortnight ago was, Sir Alex Ferguson remarked yesterday, Manchester United's "last wake-up call". Tonight's encounter here in Munich's forbidding Olympic Stadium will go a long way towards revealing whether all the alarm bells clanging around Old Trafford have been false.
As Ferguson knows, Leicester, who were overcome not without difficulty on Saturday, do not represent a true test of the Premiership champions, although the same cannot be said of a Bayern Munich side that has won three Bundesliga titles and reached two European Cup finals under Ottmar Hitzfeld.
For Hitzfeld, who spent the day ruling himself out of the contest to become Ferguson's successor, tonight's Champions' League fixture with United is a prelude to the long flight to Tokyo, where Bayern will contest the World Club Championship against Boca Juniors. Hitzfeld said he would not break his contract, which expires in three years, to come to Old Trafford and those who know him say his sights are set on taking over the German national side in 2004 in time to compete for the World Cup on their own soil.
"I would feel honoured about a Manchester United inquiry but I have a contract until 2004 and I am very happy," the 52-year-old Hitzfeld said. "To be honest, no one from the club has talked to me or asked me about that. So there is nothing to discuss now. I want to work for a few more years in Munich."
United, by contrast, are still dealing with the hangover from Anfield. Yesterday, Ferguson spoke for almost the first time since the 3-1 defeat by Liverpool which triggered expressions of disgust from the United manager and an intense debate as to the team's true worth which he has found hugely irritating.
"The work-rate has to be right for games like this," said Ferguson, who first encountered Bayern Munich in 1967 while a centre- forward for Rangers. "I have trust in my players' ability. There is no question about that."
Interestingly, he did not add that he had trust in his team's hunger, a quality which despite Hitzfeld's successes is still burning in Munich - Bayern qualified for the second phase of the Champions' League unbeaten, having scored more goals than any other club. Crucially, they achieved this without Stefan Effenberg, who on Saturday made his comeback after picking up an injury at the start of the season, and other casualties, Jens Jeremies, Mehmet Scholl and Bixente Lizarazu.
"I was afraid that after winning the Bundesliga and the Champions' League last season that our players would become complacent," remarked Bayern's president, Franz Beckenbauer. …