FC Nantes Atlantique can afford to take a few risks against Manchester United FC tonight as defeat in this Group A fixture will surely spell the end of any hope the French challengers have of making it through to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League.
United return to European action after one of their most electrifying spells of recent years, even by their immensely high standards. Sir Alex Ferguson had effectively dismissed their chances of successfully defending their FA Premiership crown in early December, but they are now back in familiar territory at the top of the table. The Old Trafford club have accumulated eleven wins in twelve games and are looking to extend this run in Europe.
Early success in the competition came at a price for Nantes, as qualification for the second group stage left them rooted to the bottom of the league table. Since the arrival of Argentinian coach and former player Angel Marcos, things have improved marginally, but the team from the Maine and Loire region still lie perilously close to the Le Championnat relegation zone in 13th spot.
Going for goals
The Beaujoire stadium should be treated to an attacking game, with Sir Alex promising just that. "If it means that we have to score tonight, then we will do whatever is necessary," the Scot said. "We know it's not going to be an easy game and the one thing about Nantes is that they don't lose goals."
Scholes boost in midfield
Ole Gunnar Solskjær will start on the bench for the English side tonight, leaving Ruud Van Nistelrooij to plough a lone furrow up front. The Norwegian's place is taken by playmaker Juan Sebastián Veron. The Argentinian international bolsters a midfield five which also includes Paul Scholes and Roy Keane in the centre and Ryan Giggs (left) and David Beckham (right) out wide. Further good news for United is the return to full fitness of goalkeeper Fabien Barthez, who will no doubt be keen to impress back on French soil.
Vahirua in attack
The main absentee for the home side is defender Nicolas Laspalles, Mauro Cetto stepping in to cover. Marcos can count on a full-strength frontline with Romanian International striker Viorel Moldovan linking up with Marama Vahirua. Pierre-Yves André is forced to settle for a place on the bench.
'Always a pleasure'
There is an interesting sideline to the match as Nantes' goalkeeper Mikaël Landreau - destined to be French No1 in the eyes of many - is at the opposite end to Barthez, the current first choice. The 22-year-old club captain has one cap to his name and holds the United man in the highest esteem. "He is an enormous example to me," said Landreau. "We are very different, but it is always a pleasure to face him on a pitch."
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