By Kevin Ashby
After their 100th victory in European competition secured an assured passage into the second group stage, Manchester United FC have travelled to Cyprus to meet Maccabi Haifa FC on Tuesday with a squad devoid of many of the players instrumental to their four UEFA Champions League victories this season.
Haifa coach Itzhak Shum's early assertion that United were "the best team" in Group F was vindicated last Wednesday as the English side beat Olympiakos Piraeus FC 3-2 to qualify. However, two of the goalscorers in Athens - Laurent Blanc and Juan Sebastián Verón - did not travel to Nicosia in addition to the rested David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Fabien Barthez and the injured Nicky Butt, Wes Brown, Ruud van Nistelrooij and Roy Keane.
'A better team'
United's weakened squad is certain to dispirit their followers on the Mediterranean island, while Haifa will look to benefit from the absence of star players. "The fact that Manchester brought an inexperienced squad doesn't mean that our task is any easier," said defender Alon Harazi. "Even without key players United are a better team than Haifa and we have to take everything in proportion. But I feel that we are going to get a good result."
Prospect of elimination
Left-back Adoram Keisi was even more confident. "This time we will return from Nicosia with the points," he said, in reference to the 2-0 Matchday Three defeat by Bayer 04 Leverkusen. Haifa will be eliminated if they fail to beat United and Leverkusen account for Olympiakos at the BayArena.
The first Israeli side to compete in the Champions League proper, Haifa have acquitted themselves commendably but defensive weaknesses were exposed in a 2-1 loss to Leverkusen last week. Their defence could be bolstered by the return of centre-back Eric Ejiofor, suspended in Germany, although the Nigerian is struggling with a knee injury sustained in Saturday's 2-1 victory against Maccabi Netanya.
Unbeaten in 16 Champions League games, United will be hoping to produce the sort of thrilling attacking play which brought them a 5-2 success against Haifa on Matchday One. A 1-1 home draw with Aston Villa FC at the weekend will have done little to boost morale, though United have reserved their most potent displays this term for Europe.
English internationals Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes, Phil and Gary Neville and should all play, with the latter captaining the side. The 16-year-old Mads Timm and Kieran Richardson, 18 last Monday, are in a squad including numerous other reserve-team players.
'Degree of caution'
Despite the unfamiliar make-up of his squad, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has promised to field as strong a team as possible. "I will be making changes but they will not be as wholesale as people think," said the Scot. "I want to rest some players but it will be done with a degree of caution. Olympiakos would have every right to complain, so we want to be seen to be doing the right thing."
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