All eyes will be on Manchester United FC in the next couple of weeks to see how they handle the additional pressure of European competition. Many are of the opinion that it was no coincidence that United’s domestic form improved when the UEFA Champions League closed down for a couple of months over the winter. Before that it seemed as though they had devoted all their energies towards regaining the European title in what was meant to be Sir Alex Ferguson's valedictory season.
Ferguson's decision to give himself three more years, however, may have lifted some of the pressure on his players. On current form they should not need to be at their best to beat FC Nantes Atlantique at the Beaujoire stadium, but Ferguson, never one for resting on his laurels, is appealing to his players to reproduce the form they showed against FC Bayern München last November.
Only a late equaliser by Paulo Sergio denied United victory at the Olympiastadion, but a win against the struggling French side would make a place in the quarter-finals a formality. "We know it's not going to be an easy game," said Ferguson. "The one thing about Nantes is that they don’t lose goals. But we know if we get the form of Bayern Munich back we will be very happy."
When United beat Boavista in December they were just seventh in the FA Premiership. Since then they have embarked on a run of eleven wins in 13 games which has swept them back to the top of the table have turned what looked like almost certain surrender of their title into a possible eighth championship success in ten years.
Only defeat on French soil
David Beckham, Fabien Barthez and Paul Scholes have all been passed fit, so United will be able to unleash their full might against Nantes. This will be United's eighth tie against French opposition. Their only defeat on French soil came against Olympique de Marseille two seasons ago when William Gallas scored the only goal of the game, although AS Monaco FC eliminated them from the Champions League on away goals in 1998 after two draws. Earlier in the competition this season, they drew with Lille OSC in Lens.
Nantes are the only side without a point in the second group stage. In direct contrast to their explosive start to the first group stage, the French club have lost their first two Group A matches. Erwin Sánchez's first-half strike for Boavista FC was decisive in the battle of the group’s underdogs in Portugal while Champions League holders Bayern returned from France with a 1-0 win thanks to Paulo Sergio's winner.
Change of coach
However, there has been a change of head coach since they lost 1-0 at home to Bayern. Angel Marcos, an Argentinian, has returned to the club he once played for after an absence of 26 years to replace Raynald Denoueix. Since Marcos's arrival Nantes's domestic form has improved a little. The club has climbed from the bottom of the table to 13th place in the French first division. Prior to their 1-0 defeat at home to LOSC last weekend, when they missed a penalty in added-on time, Nantes had won all their four home games under Angel.
The reigning French champions will be effectively eliminated from the competition should they lose to United so the stakes are high. They will not be aided by the absence of defender Nicolas Laspalles with a thigh injury, although left-back Sylvain Armand has been passed fit and is available for selection. Marcos's first signing for the club, Colombian international Mario Yepes is also available and will be hoping to make his Champions League debut. Other recent Nantes signings eligible for selection are Victor Bonilla, who was signed from Toulouse FC and Mauro Cetto, who arrived from Club Atlético Newell's Old Boys.
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