The smile on Sir Alex Ferguson’s face at his pre-match press conference told its own story and when he laughed and joked about returning to ‘hell’, where hideous locals are intimidating and hostile to people they don’t know, he could afford to be flippant.
But he wasn’t actually talking about Salford, he was reminiscing about Manchester United’s infamous trip to Galatasaray in 1993, where his side were dumped out of their first ever Champions League campaign after a dismal 0-0 draw, ahead of Tuesday’s visit to Turkey.
If that match has gone into United folklore – and the volatile atmosphere, vicious treatment from police and poor result means that it has – then a first trip to face the Turkish champions since 1994 is hardly even going to be a footnote in the club’s history.
Ferguson could afford to be so jovial. The red half of Manchester have succeeded where they so dismally failed last season and are in the dream position of having won their Champions League group with two games to spare.
|Champions League - Qualifiers|
|FK Aktobe win||£58.50||(19/20)|
|D. Tbilisi win||£111.00||(27/10)|
|FK Aktobe||0-0||D. Tbilisi||£202.50||(23/4)|
|FK Aktobe||1-0||D. Tbilisi||£172.50||(19/4)|
|FK Aktobe||1-1||D. Tbilisi||£195.00||(11/2)|
A section that included Galatasaray, Cluj and Braga really ought not to have caused United any problems, but the same could have been said about last season, when they were drawn against Benfica, Basel and Otelul Galati, and not qualifying from that group was a laughably bad effort.
This year, though, there have been no mistakes. Ferguson, aware as anybody that it was a more than feasible ask, wanted qualification to the last 16 wrapped up as soon as possible and that is exactly what has happened.
It hasn’t always been plain sailing – United have been behind against Cluj and Braga (twice) – but four wins from four have United sitting pretty at the top of Group H on 12 points while the other three sides battle it out for second spot with just 11 points between them.
It is the situation every top club in Europe wants to be in and it means United really do have it made. Europe has been all but put to bed until February and Ferguson’s team selection will show just that.
Ferguson has made noises about ‘respecting the other teams’ and ‘showing some pride’, but he has earned the chance to make wholesale changes to his side and is well within his rights to do so.
Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie are among those who haven’t travelled, meaning youngsters like Nick Powell and, possibly, Phil Jones will start, with Darren Fletcher and Javier Hernandez among those also likely to feature.
Those sweeping changes are the only reason that you can get 9/4 about a United win, with the draw at 14/5 and the home side at even money. So the question is, at what point do United become value?
Galatasaray are top of the Turkish SuperLig, but their home form has been surprisingly poor of late. Gala have only won one of the last five at Turk Telekom and haven’t won a European home match since 2009.
It is not what you come to expect from the Turkish champions and manager Fatih Terim was moved enough to come up with the brilliant quote ‘statistics are like mini-skirts – they don’t reveal everything’.
Maybe not, but evens is pretty short for an inferior team with such a bad recent record, even when facing youngsters and reserves. So I’m not fussed about evens on Gala, but I do like the 23/20 that they score the first goal of the first half.
I may sound like a broken record, but United just can’t stop conceding goals, especially the first one: 11 times in 18 games Ferguson’s side have let in the opening strike, which is one of the most remarkable stats you’ll ever read, and I think a makeshift team that will take a while to get into the game are primed to suffer the same fate.
Of course, on eight of those occasions, United have come back to win and that could be the case in Turkey. But without knowing the exact team news it is hard to say how much firepower will be on the pitch for the Red Devils, so I will just stick to that 23/20 that they go 1-0 down in the first half.