United aim higher as European defence starts

No club has retained the Champions League since the format was introduced in 1992 — but Manchester United will look to break the mould when they embark on this season’s campaign at home to Villarreal of Spain on Wednesday.

The high-octane win on penalties over Chelsea in Moscow last May gave manager Sir Alex Ferguson his second triumph and now he sees a personal hat-trick within reach — even if the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool, not to forget Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Barcelona, would beg to differ.

Both triumphs overseen by Sir Alex were seat-of-the-pants affairs, with the last-gasp turnaround against Bayern Munich in 1999 and then the spot-kick drama four months ago.

The Red Devils still have a way to go when it comes to putting their medals on the table alongside those of nine-time winners Real, seven-time champions AC Milan and Liverpool, five times kings of Europe.

But Ferguson says his men are hell-bent on narrowing the gap as they bid to emulate AC Milan, the last team to win back-to-back European Cup crowns in 1990.

”Winning in Moscow was so important because there was an imbalance in our club’s history, given the importance we place, and have always placed, on European football,” said Ferguson.

”Sir Matt Busby took the club into Europe before other English clubs dared to and his vision was right,” Ferguson said.

”When you consider that teams like Bayern Munich have won this trophy four times, Ajax four, Liverpool five, AC Milan seven times and Real Madrid nine, you see how far short of that group we were. That group is our target now — it has to be.”

But before United can join the real elite of European football, they must deal with the likes of Villarreal, whom Ferguson dubs ”a very strong side” after their runner-up finish in La Liga last season.

Manuel Pellegrini’s side, which includes former Arsenal man Robert Pires, reached the semis three years ago.

Also in United’s group are Scottish side Celtic, the first British side to win the European Cup — a year before United’s 1968 success.

The Celts, coached by Gordan Strachan — who tasted a Cup Winners’ Cup success with Ferguson at Aberdeen before following him to Old Trafford — take on Denmark’s Aalborg, coached by former Scotland international and ex-Arsenal boss Bruch Rioch.

Celtic star Shaun Maloney is desperate for the action to start, having watched last season’s campaign on television prior to his return from Aston Villa.

”I was quite envious watching the Champions League when I was away, and I hope to be involved in it again on Wednesday,” said Maloney, who faces competition from Aiden McGeady for a starting place.

Arsenal, buoyed by the fine form of England hero Theo Walcott and Emmanuel Adebayor, travel to Dynamo Kiev in Group G, ahead of facing Portuguese champions Porto and Turkish club Fenerbahce.

”We are in a tough group and Kiev are experienced as well as being a strong side at home,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger warned.

A hat-trick of European Cup wins for Bayern Munich came in the wake of Ajax’s similar achievement in the early 1970s, before the Germans’ last win, in 2001. Bayern travel to Group F rivals Steaua Bucharest while French table-toppers Lyon have an awkward opener at home to Italy’s Fiorentina.

Real Madrid, whose ninth crown came in 2002 in the era of Zinedine Zidane, should swat newcomers Bate Borisov of Belarus in Group H, but Juventus may find Russian Uefa Cup winners and Manchester United’s Super Cup conquerors Zenit St Petersburg quite a handful. — Sapa-AFP

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