Last updated : 03 December 2006 By Ed

"It's a massive game and one we want to win even though a draw will do.

"If we get the result, we have the quality this year to win the Champions League. I think all four of the English teams are capable of winning it."

Sunday Telelgraph:

This is where a manager can make a big difference in a short time: the crucial stage of the Champions League groups featuring Manchester United and Arsenal. Both face Portuguese opposition on Wednesday and Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, who have aired a few differences during the Premiership's most famous rivalry, each need a point to guide their teams into the knockout rounds. It is what Ferguson once called "squeaky-bum time" and anyone hoping for nerves to be eased swiftly ought to prepare for disappointment, perhaps by seeking the advice of a pharmacist.

Oddly, given that United are at home to Benfica while Arsenal must brave Porto's Dragao, it is Ferguson and his men who may encounter the greater tension. Not only are they haunted by the fresh memory of how, having outpassed Celtic to an almost embarrassing degree at Parkhead 12 days ago, they seemed to fall for their own reflections before being confounded by Shunsuke Nakumura's exquisite free kick and the subsequent failure of Louis Saha to convert a penalty: a result that enabled Celtic to qualify ahead of both United and Arsenal, not to mention Barcelona. Ferguson's men, notably Paul Scholes, will also be acutely aware of the first knockout round three seasons ago, when at Old Trafford they led Porto through a Scholes goal and had another incorrectly disallowed before Costinha struck a mortal blow in the last minute, inducing Jose Mourinho to give an English audience its first experience of his proclivity for celebrating like the player who (for all those hints of a brief career in Portuguese football's respectable hinterland) he never quite was.

And then there is the knowledge that Benfica removed United at this stage last season. In Lisbon, as in Glasgow more recently, United suffered the fate of Narcissus, moving in front early through Scholes and then relaxing, appearing hardly to notice while Benfica scored twice. Of course they have improved as a team since then, Saha providing more pace and aerial power than Ruud van Nistelrooy could, and Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo gaining a year, but they will require either a big lead or a lot of concentration if Ferguson is to rest calmly on one of those padded perches they now provide for managers (as if they did not resemble little emperors already). One-nil, even two-nil, would be squeaky; all it would need is a long shot and a deflection past Edwin van der Sar and the psychology of the match could change like the weather on an English summer's day. So my guess is that Ferguson will give the dressing room the line he has come to favour in Europe: go for their throats (or words to that effect) and don't relent. Sometimes the players can do it, sometimes not. If forewarned is forearmed, however, they have run out of excuses for failure.

I think the philosophy of English teams in Europe has undergone a subtle revolution since 1999, when Ferguson's career peaked with the dramatic victory over Bayern Munich in Barcelona. In those days it was de rigueur to talk of caution and keeping the ball and Ferguson, whose European training had begun at Aberdeen in the late Seventies (though his interest had initially been stimulated by a view from the Hampden Park terraces as Real Madrid beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the immortal final of 1960), was broadly orthodox. He would often tell his players that a slender half-time lead was enough; the priority was to keep possession so the opposition could not force their way back into contention. Maybe it was that glorious campaign of 1999, during which United scored 29 goals in 11 matches, that helped to change attitudes. Maybe the increasing influence of foreign players and coaches made the process inevitable. At any rate, it looks as if the arrival of Mourinho from Porto has completed our education in the desirability of keeping the back door bolted at all times. Since he joined Chelsea, the club have conceded a mere 45 goals in 91 Premiership matches and, if you need broader evidence than that of the bridging of the old philosophical divide between England and the rest of Europe, look at goals-per-match statistics compiled recently for the Sky Sports website. If you want goals, try Holland's top division (3.16), or Germany's (2.75) or even supposedly sterile Italy's (2.52). Try Spain or Portugal or Scotland before you settle for the Premiership (2.14). That does not necessarily mean it has been a relatively boring Premiership so far — although it has — but the truth is that our teams do seem to be defending more effectively than was the case a few years back. When you take into account how well they have been doing in the UEFA Cup, you can begin to envisage a fairly imminent return to the pre-Heysel days when an English presence in at least one final was considered almost routine.