uefa.com gives its mid-term report on UEFA Champions League challengers Manchester United FC.
Each day until 31 December uefa.com will assess the fortunes of a UEFA Champions League participant. Today we look at Manchester United FC.
Once Sir Alex Ferguson had announced his plans to retire at the end of the 2001/02 season, May's UEFA Champions League final in his home town of Glasgow was identified as the ideal stage for the 59-year-old manager to take his final bow.
With a view to achieving that goal, and simultaneously steering his side to an eighth FA Premiership crown in ten years, Sir Alex made several high-profile signings to bolster his squad. In came Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooij and Juan Sebastián Veron, a €45m arrival from S.S. Lazio.
However, on the pitch things have not gone according to plan. The summer departure of Teddy Sheringham to Tottenham Hotspur FC left a hole in the United attack, and with nobody suitably equipped to assume the linking forward role that Sheringham - and previously Eric Cantona - had played so well at Old Trafford stadium, Sir Alex abandoned United's stringent 4-4-2 formation in favour of a 4-5-1 approach.
FIRST GROUP STAGE: Smart start
United began well enough, with a smart 2-0 victory over Olympiakos Piraeus FC in Athens, and scraped past Lille OSC by virtue of David Beckham's last-minute strike at Old Trafford. But back-to-back defeats against RC Deportivo La Coruña seriously hampered their chances of progressing to the competition's second stage as group winners and the players realised they had a battle on their hands.
'More difficult than we thought'
The points gained from a comfortable home victory over Olympiakos and a 1-1 draw squeezed out against Lille OSC were enough to send United through as Group G runners-up, and Sir Alex seemed satisfied. "When you consider that Deportivo are in first place in the Spanish league, it shows that the group was a lot more difficult than we thought it would be at the start," he said. "We are happy to finish second and to qualify for the next phase."
SECOND GROUP STAGE: Back on song
Van Nistelrooij set United on their way to a creditable 1-1 draw against an FC Bayern München side undefeated in Europe this season, before Sir Alex resorted to a 4-4-2 formation for the visit of Boavista FC to Old Trafford. Beckham found himself on the substitutes' bench while Dwight Yorke played in attack behind the excellent Van Nisterooij, who scored twice as a more traditional looking United coasted to a 3-0 victory.
REMAINING GAMES: Dream finish
United will look to take maximum points from their double header with FC Nantes Atlantique to avoid relying on victories in crunch matches with Bayern at home or away in Portugal. If they safely make the quarter-final stage, Sir Alex's dream will be that little bit closer to becoming reality.
THE MANAGER: Sir Alex Ferguson
Without doubt one of the greatest managers in modern European football, Sir Alex's incredible run with United has seen them totally dominate English football for a decade and develop into real challengers on the highest stages in Europe.
Success with Aberdeen
After an undistinguished career as a player, Ferguson came to European prominence as a manager with Aberdeen FC with whom he won the 1982/83 UEFA European Cup Winners' Cup before spending a brief spell in charge of the Scottish national side and moving to Old Trafford.
A master tactician, Ferguson has a fearsome reputation as a disciplinarian behind the scenes. Now in his final season at Old Trafford, he casts a giant shadow over the club which he effectively rebuilt from scratch after his arrival in 1986. Some supporters may have questioned some of his tactical decisions this season, but they would never dare to question his credentials as a manager.
THE PLAYER: David Beckham
Revered on and off the pitch, on his day David Beckham is one of the most accomplished passers of a ball in world football and has an extraordinary knack of scoring spectacular goals from set-pieces.
A quiet person by nature, Beckham is transformed when he takes the pitch and his habit of inspiring his team-mates and saving his best performances for moments of crisis have seen him honoured by being made captain of the English national side.
This season, he has earned a nomination for the 2001 FIFA World Player of the Year, but by his own high standards, he has not been best as United have struggled to come to terms with the summer's new arrivals. Nonetheless, he remains a threat and the kind of player any coach would love to have. After Boavista's 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford in which Beckham remained on the bench, coach Jaime Pacheco joked: "It's a shame I wasn't told David Beckham wouldn't be playing because I could have used him instead."
DOMESTIC FORM: Shock to the system
Old Trafford was renowned as a fortress in recent seasons, but the 2001/02 campaign has seen United beaten at home with surprising regularity. Chelsea FC, West Ham United FC and promoted Bolton Wanderers FC have all won in Manchester, leaving Sir Alex with an uphill task if they are to land another FA Premiership title.