United keen to learn lessons
Just outside Old Trafford's Europa Suite, a matter of yards away from Sir Alex Ferguson as the 70-year-old discusses his 17th consecutive Champions League campaign, is a corridor framed by pictures of previous forays onto the continent.
There are images of Mark Hughes and Eric Cantona, two of the warriors of Ferguson's first great side, scrapping with Galatasaray. They were the days when United were greeted at the Ali Sami Yen stadium by banners proclaiming 'Welcome to Hell'. It was an inferno where Cantona and Bryan Robson were attacked by policemen after the final whistle.
They are distant days - so distant that Robson will be 56 in January - and came at a time when Ferguson experienced teething troubles in the Champions League. As they prepare for a reunion with Galatasaray, it is a reminder of more recent troubles that exercise the Manchester United manager's mind now.
Having reached three of the previous four finals, their 2011-12 Champions League campaign concluded unusually early, United contriving to finish third in a group containing Otelul Galati, Basel and Benfica. It was a wake-up call. "The only thing in our mind is to prove we have learned the lessons of last season," Javier Hernandez said.
A tacit admission of complacency in both selection and performance came from Ferguson. "I think we all agree that we were careless in two of the games at home," he said. "We were in a winning position against Benfica and drew 2-2. The Basel game is the one where the criticism quite rightly lies. We were 2-0 up and ended up with a 3-3 draw which in effect knocked us out. Having to go there and get a result, we were chasing our tail a bit."
The aim is to avoid a repeat. This year's group, which also includes Braga and Cluj, bears comparison with last year's, but United's approach will be altogether different. Whereas the midweek XI tended to be weaker than its Premier League counterpart 12 months ago, now the opposite applies. Robin van Persie, Shinji Kagawa, Tom Cleverley and Patrice Evra could be parachuted in to face the Turkish champions. "Over the past few years the group stages have been very straightforward for us so it gave me the opportunity to play a lot of young players but I'll be playing a more experienced team," Ferguson insisted.
That is likely to include his captain, though Europe cost him his services last season. Nemanja Vidic sustained a cruciate knee ligament injury in Basel that brought his campaign to an abrupt halt. It is why, when asked if United could conquer the continent for a fourth time, Ferguson's answer is indirect. "I think the key for us is if we can keep the defenders fit," he added. "I really mean that because we have had a really rough ride with defenders being injured for the last two or three years.
"At the moment [Chris] Smalling and [Phil] Jones are long term [absentees] and I am down to three centre backs in Vidic, [Rio] Ferdinand and [Jonny] Evans and if I was guaranteed two of those being fit for the rest of the season I would take that now. But it has not been the case over the last few years."
United won at Wolfsburg during an injury crisis three years ago with an ersatz back three of Patrice Evra, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher, but that was after they had reached the ten-point barrier with a game to go. Now the immediate task is to return to those days, when seemingly undemanding groups were navigated with comparative ease. It is a matter of winning now, rotating later.
In the Champions League, as well as in the Premier League, losing leads at Old Trafford proved costly last season. The moral is not to relax when ahead. "Without doubt that has to be a driving force this year," Ferguson said. "If you think back to Everton, [winning] 4-2 and then drawing four each. So goal difference will be a priority this season. It's better being on the black side than the red."
And, in one respect, the Red Devils were in the red because of their European mishaps. He was speaking while United announced financial results, showing a 3.3% drop in revenue that was partly attributable to their early exit from the Champions League. A competition that provides status also drives income.
There are other considerations, however. Becoming officially Europe's best team was a magnificent obsession to both Sir Matt Busby and Ferguson, consuming both for years before the ambition was realised.
Along the way, legends were made and tales passed down the generations. "You know the history of this club," Hernandez said. "They teach you that. You need to aim to be the best and in the Champions League you need to look to the final and try and win it."
And yet, as United know, before they dream of glory, they have to avoid ignominy.