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FOOTBALL: FERGIE: I CAN SMELL GLORY; 'We have same spirit as '99 treble winners'.

Byline: DAVID McDONNELL

SIR ALEX FERGUSON last night claimed he can smell the scent of Champions League glory among his Manchester United players once again.

United boss Fergie believes his side have recaptured the all-conquering spirit which saw them crowned kings of Europe in the Treble-winning season of 1999.

United take on Bayer Leverkusen at Old Trafford tonight in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final, with Ferguson confident his players can re-establish themselves as the best in Europe.

"Our performances in beating Deportivo La Coruna in the quarter-finals were our best in Europe for years, maybe our best ever," said Fergie.

"Since then, the feeling among the players has been incredible. I can smell these things, I know when they're right. And I can tell you the feeling is very right at the moment.

"The desire is there among the players. We can only say whether we're the best team in Europe on May 16, the day after the final, if we've won it.

"What matters is doing it on the football field, proving it out there. That's what the players want to do."

Ferguson believes his current side are far better equipped to lift the European Cup than the one which triumphed over Bayern Munich three years ago.

"We're showing more composure than we did in 1999," he said. "That year we never stopped, it was like a rollercoaster, playing twice a week on the way to the Treble.

"The only real comparison between that year and this one is the spirit, which is first class. Whatever we achieve this season, we'll do together as a unit."

And Ferguson was given a huge boost last night when Laurent Blanc admitted he is close to changing his mind over his plans to retire at the end of the season.

United have offered the French defender a year's extension and he says: "I'm certainly going to give it some thought." United start tonight's semi-final as clear favourites.

"It's important to have been there before and I would expect my players to handle themselves well," said Fergie. United, without Roy Keane, David Beckham and Ronny Johnsen, will welcome back Juan Sebastian Veron.

Ferguson will stick with his European system, with Ryan Giggs operating in the space just behind lone front man Ruud van Nistelrooy.

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BRING ON LEVERKUSEN: A confident Sir Alex Ferguson yesterday Picture: BRADLEY ORMESHER
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 24, 2002
Words:398
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