Why History Is Stacked against Fergie Fairytale; Kings of Europe: But the Record Books Do Not Make Good Reading If You Fancy United to Keep the Crown

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WIN tonight, at Old Trafford against Wigan Athletic, and Manchester United will move to within two points of Liverpool, with a home game against Fulham in hand.

Next week, Derby County travel north to defend a most slender first-leg lead in the Carling Cup, and the following Saturday brings a home FA Cup fixture against Tottenham Hotspur, who have lost 12 and drawn four of the previous 16 meetings. A first domestic treble is on for Manchester United, the quadruple too, with six matches separating them from a return to the Champions League Final, in Rome, on May 27.

And there, sadly, the fairytale may end. For if Manchester United are heading for the scrap of their lives on the home front, overtaking Liverpool and winning two cups, then adding a consecutive European triumph to it could prove mission impossible. Indeed, a betting man with any respect for the formbook would attempt to buck the recession by placing a large wager on Inter Milan, champions of Italy, to dispatch United in the first knockout round next month.

Since 2004, the last 16 of the competition has been the graveyard of champions. Porto, Liverpool, Barcelona and AC Milan have all fallen at that stage and to escape a continuation United must defeat an Inter Milan team, marshalled by Jose Mourinho, in command of Serie A once more.

Inter were outplayed by Liverpool last season, but much has changed since then. Mourinho's gnomic expression in the Old Trafford directors' box on Sunday was interpreted as inner contempt for what had been done to his Chelsea team, but his acid observation that he saw only Manchester United on the field may, for once, be taken at face value.

No manager has greater awareness of the power of words than Mourinho and, yes, he will have calculated the double meaning and its withering appraisal of his former club, but he is at heart a pragmatist, and why should he waste a second of thought on Chelsea, when before him were his next European opponents, the global champions, due at the San Siro stadium on February 24?

He will have been generally familiar with what was on view. This is a Manchester United team that has been given the traditional shake of the reins by Sir Alex Ferguson in the second half of the season and is working its way through the field.

Ferguson plans his campaigns as expertly as a top jockey maps his route around Epsom Downs on Derby day. He stays in touch but rarely hits the front too early. Now he is beginning the kick for home.

The imaginative use of his midfield players on Sunday, Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher ahead of Michael Carrick, Anderson or Paul Scholes, suggests he has specific plans for each individual in the months ahead. Scholes against Inter Milan, perhaps, replicating his matchwinning role against Barcelona last year. T

here is no reason to be entirely pessimistic. At first glance, Manchester United, on current form, should have every chance against any opponent in Europe, but records are records for a reason, and the fact is since the European Cup changed to its Champions League format, no winner has retained the title. Less widely realised, however, is the exhausting impact an appearance in a Champions League final has on the subsequent form of the winning club.

The last champion team to make it back to the final the following year were Juventus, winners in 1996, beaten 3-1 by Borussia Dortmund in 1997. Dortmund's defence was ended by eventual winners Real Madrid at the semi-final stage, and Madrid went on to be eliminated by Dynamo Kiev in the quarter-finals the next year. Manchester United's last attempt to win back-to-back European trophies was ended by Real Madrid, also at the quarterfinal stage, at which point, adding insult to injury, the tournament became appreciably more difficult.

The 1999-2000 season was the first to contain a 32-team Champions League and the extra matches would appear to have made a tough task positively mountainous. …