Ferguson hits out at Lille over dispute

SIR Alex Ferguson has launched a scathing attack on Lille for their behaviour in the Champions League first-leg encounter against Manchester United a fortnight ago.

Although Ferguson attempted to play down the row which accompanied Ryan Giggs' quickly taken free-kick which earned United victory at the Stade Felix-Bollaert when he faced the media prior to tonight's return encounter at Old Trafford, the Scot has been substantially more forthright in his programme notes.

In a wide-ranging attack, Ferguson condemned not only the Lille reaction to Giggs' goal but also their subsequent complaints to UEFA and the French club's desire to prolong the argument and turn it into a "big-club, little-club" row.

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"Our opponents have turned this match into something that goes beyond normal rivalry," Ferguson told United Review.

"They have virtually accused us of cheating by taking a quick free-kick, despite the fact that around the field their players took similarly speedy action on a number of occasions.

"The bottom line is that Ryan Giggs showed great presence of mind while their team were caught napping - and that's not cheating. I believe they should be looking at themselves rather than blaming us.

"It is not our fault that their goalkeeper took an inordinately long time to line up the defensive wall in front of him.

"To appeal against the UEFA findings that the goal should stand beggars belief and just pours water (sic) on an already inflammatory situation."

Ferguson has already expressed his belief that UEFA will come down hard on Lille for their reaction to Giggs' winner, when they appeared to be ready to walk off the field in protest. And the manager has not changed his view, complaining their actions have heaped the pressure on Spanish referee Luis Medina Cantalejo, who will take charge of tonight's encounter.

"The behaviour of Lille in the first leg and their attitude since marks this tie out as something different," continued Ferguson.

"You just don't know how the undertones will affect the players, and even more importantly, the referee.

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"I know our guys will be strong because that is something in their character.

"More and more, Lille are presenting themselves as a little club against a big one who are bullying them. Inevitably, that stance puts pressure on a referee. Officials are only human.

"It will be interesting to see how everyone will react when there is a free-kick in range of goal. But I am sure, when the dust has settled, Lille's attempts to get their players to walk off in protest will worry their coach for a long time to come.

"It certainly should because I have never seen anything like it before."

It is 11 years since Ajax became the only side in Champions League history to overturn a first-leg deficit inflicted on home soil to advance in a knockout tie - Panathinaikos the hapless victims - so United would not appear to have too much to disturb them.

They may not have been at their best over the past couple of weeks but four successive away wins, culminating in Saturday's potentially pivotal Barclays Premiership victory at Liverpool, have emphasised the staying power of Ferguson's troops.

Yet, in failing on two occasions to beat tonight's opponents last season, and by losing to both Copenhagen and Celtic already this term, the Old Trafford club know little is certain in European football these days.

Ferguson continued: "Europe is a test, it doesn't matter who you play. You cannot take anything for granted as it proved last year against Celtic and Copenhagen, when we were very careless. But I trust the players because they are showing great expression in their game. We are approaching the game in a good mind and with a strong spirit, so we have a big chance."

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With Louis Saha and Darren Fletcher injured and Patrice Evra doubtful, Henrik Larsson and Gabriel Heinze seem certain to start, while Alan Smith is virtually guaranteed a place on the bench even though he has not made a first-team appearance since the Carling Cup defeat at Southend in November.

Ferguson, meanwhile, has again ruled out extending Larsson's stay in Manchester despite fresh concerns over Saha. "Henrik Larsson definitely goes back to Sweden next week," said Ferguson.