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The UEFA Champions League returns to Old Trafford on Tuesday night when Manchester United FC launch their Group E campaign against Panathinaikos FC.
For United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, the aim is to improve on last season's campaign which ended in a quarter-final defeat by Real Madrid CF and not in a dreamed-of final appearance at their home stadium. While AC Milan and Juventus FC contested the European crown at Old Trafford, Ferguson was left to rue his team's 6-5 aggregate loss to Madrid.
"If we had maintained the defensive solidity we had shown for most of the season, we would have been in the next round, but we went to Madrid and conceded some soft goals," the manager said. "You are always looking for improvements and one thing about our defence now is that they are all young, they haven't had the experience of playing together for two or three years. Now we are looking for consistency of performance."
To this end, Ferguson will have welcomed the return from injury and illness of defensive midfield player Nicky Butt and centre-back Rio Ferdinand. The pair featured in the 2-0 win at Charlton Athletic FC on Saturday which lifted United to second place in the Premiership. Ole Gunnar Solksjær and Mikaël Silvestre were rested for that game after picking up knocks on international duty, but both should play against Panathinaikos. Ferguson is, however, without midfield players Roy Keane (ankle), Paul Scholes (hernia) and Kleberson (dislocated shoulder).
The English champions could not have picked better opponents for their curtain-raiser, inasmuch as United have never lost at home to a Greek side while Panathinaikos have never won a UEFA competition match on English soil. Not that Ferguson is taking anything for granted against last season's Alpha Ethniki runners-up.
No easy fixture
"At the moment I'm only concerned with Panathinaikos," he said. "I had them watched last week and they still had eight of the players who played against us the last time we met a couple of years ago.
They've plenty of experience and I don't expect it to be easy at all."
That experience includes the wise old head of the Panathinaikos coach Itzhak Shum. The Israeli trainer, who led Maccabi Haifa FC against United in the Champions League last season, believes "United are the best team in our group" - a section that also includes VfB Stuttgart and Rangers FC. None the less, he insisted his players would "try to win", adding: "We all know how difficult it will be on United's home ground, but if we didn't believe we had a chance, we wouldn't have come."
Ins and outs
Shum will likely use Croatian midfielder Silvio Maric in place of the injured Angelos Basinas (knee), while Michalis Konstantinou could be deployed as the solitary striker with Emmanuel Olisadebe still short of fitness following an injury. Olisadebe may figure as a substitute, however, along with playmaker Lucian Sanmartean, another player returning from a spell on the sidelines.
Panathinaikos maintained their winning start to the Greek season on Saturday with a third successive victory - 3-1 at home against Kallithea FC. Chances are they won't have things quite so easy as Old Trafford welcomes back the European élite this week.
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