Manchester United FC will look to put a fractious close season behind them when they get their UEFA Champions League campaign under way against Hungarian champions Debreceni VSC at Old Trafford tonight.
Manager Sir Alex Ferguson knows that the best way to respond to stories of rancour and discord would be a reminder that his side are serious contenders to repeat their 1999 triumph, when they beat FC Bayern München to become European champions for the second time.
For the third time in three years, United must first negotiate a qualifier, and they are no strangers to Hungarian opposition having beaten Zalaegerszegi TE 5-1 on aggregate in 2002/03. But they will take nothing for granted against a Debrecen side that overawed HNK Hajduk Split 8-0 on aggregate in the last round, including a 5-0 win in Croatia.
"Going to Split at any time is not easy, so to come away with a result like that is very impressive," Sir Alex conceded. Debrecen coach Attila Supka knows his side go into the tie as underdogs, but promised they would not be overawed by their illustrious adversaries. "We are not arriving with our hands up just because our opponent is one of the biggest clubs in the world," said Supka.
Potent strike force
Debrecen playmaker Tamás Sándor should pose Roy Keane some questions in his advanced midfield role, while the United back line face a tough task shackling livewire forward Igor Bogdanovic and his towering partner Zsombor Kerekes.
Whatever trials lie ahead, the English side will be delighted to draw a line under a stormy summer. American businessman Malcolm Glazer's takeover raised the ire of some fans, as did the hesitence of the club's record signing Rio Ferdinand to sign a new contract - which he did yesterday
Although the departures of Kleberson and Phil Neville mean there is little cover in central midfield, Sir Alex will take heart from the talismanic Wayne Rooney, who scored a spectacular solo effort against J-League club Urawa Red Diamonds. The England striker has become a pivotal figure in the side aged just 19, while new goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar also seems likely to provide some much-needed stability.
Park Ji-Sung made an encouraging start on United's Asian tour, weighing in with a goal of his own against Beijing Guoan FC. The Korean international dazzled on his last Champions League performance for former club PSV Eindhoven, in the semi-final loss to AC Milan last season, and a similar showing tonight should set United up for yet another crack at the group stage.
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