Phil Neville has boldly claimed Manchester United would rather face Serie A’s finest clubs in the Champions League first knock-out stage.
Failure to beat Fenerbahce in their final group game in Istanbul last night ensured the Red Devils have a 60% chance of landing Italian opposition when the last-16 draw is made in Nyon a week tomorrow.
Juventus and AC Milan, currently first and second in the Italian league, plus sixth-placed Inter are all potential opponents, with Bayer Leverkusen and Monaco completing the quintet.
But rather than take a less troublesome route to the last eight, via Germany or France, Neville believes United would be better tackling the Italian challenge head on.
“We always like to play the big teams and they don’t come much bigger than Juventus, AC Milan and Inter,” he said.
“But matches like those tend to bring out the best in us. We have been to these places before and won, so there is no reason why we can’t do it again.
“We have always thrived on challenges like that and we know to win the Champions League you have to beat the biggest teams anyway.
“We don’t seem to have had a really big tie for a long time but I think there is a good chance we will get one now – and that will be something for everyone to look forward to.”
Neville’s statement is backed up by recent form. While United have not met AC Milan in competitive combat since their 1969 semi-final encounter, the Red Devils have had the better of recent clashes with both Juventus and Inter.
United’s sole loss in their last six encounters with Juventus was a dead rubber in Turin seven seasons ago.
While the memory of the famous Roy Keane-inspired 3-2 semi-final win at the Stadio Delle Alpi one year later will never be forgotten, of more relevance is the 3-0 hammering United inflicted two years ago.
That victory, which saw Keane perform brilliantly at centre-half and Ryan Giggs’ devastating display of wing wizardry, remains Juventus’ biggest European defeat on home soil.
United’s only previous confrontation with Inter came at the quarter-final stage in the treble-winning campaign when two Dwight Yorke goals in the first leg at Old Trafford proved too much for the Italians.
The current Inter side, coached by Roberto Mancini, is much changed from the previous one, with current Brazilian goalscoring king Adriano replacing Ronaldo from the squad that faced United in 1999.
Just as AC Milan have a former Red Devil among their ranks in the towering presence of Jaap Stam, Inter have in Argentinian playmaker Juan Sebastian Veron, who disappointed in his two years at Old Trafford.
In addition, Neville also knows that so-called easier draws have caught United out before. Only 12 months ago United were defeated in a two-legged encounter with eventual winners Porto.
Neville admits the 1998 quarter-final elimination to Monaco and the semi-final exit to Bayer Leverkusen four years later will rank as two of the most worst experiences of his time at the club.
“Those defeats were big disappointments and people thought we had an easy draw when we got Porto last year and they knocked us out,” said Neville.
“It just proves what can happen. At this stage of the competition, any opponent is going to be tough. I just think it would be nice to get a really big game.”
Having confirmed last week he will not be leaving the club, Neville will spend the next two months attempting to force his way into Ferguson’s side on a permanent basis.
Last night was only the sixth time the 26-year-old had started a game this season, a bizarre statistic given Eric Djemba-Djemba, who has made little impact, has begun twice as many.
Neville has already stated his desire to play more often but for now seems resigned to skippering a second-string side whose next appearance will probably come in the FA Cup third round tie against non-league Exeter or against Chelsea in the Carling Cup semi-final.