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Motherwell to perform high-wire act without a net

Being part of a squad caught cold at the start of the season and humiliated in European competition proved to be the making of Stephen McManus and a blessing in disguise for his team.

This time, though, there would be no silver lining should Motherwell slip up against Stjarnan in the second qualifying round of the Europa League. Losing is not an option, for a number of reasons.

Nine years ago, McManus was a young guy running out of patience at Celtic as he waited for a chance to show his worth. That opportunity would arrive on a sweltering and thoroughly shocking evening in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava.

He was on the bench as Gordon Strachan took charge of his first competitive match in the Champions League preliminaries against the little-known Artmedia - now languishing in their country's third division under a different name - and suffered an astonishing 5-0 defeat.

McManus was brought into the starting line-up for the first league fixture of the season - at Fir Park, strangely enough - three days later and scored in the 4-0 second-leg win against Artmedia on the way to becoming a regular at centre-half for the Glasgow club.

On reflection, he believes that early European exit allowed Strachan to focus on bringing the league title back to Parkhead free of diversions.

Motherwell, of course, harbour different ambitions. Money is seriously thin on the ground and defeat at the hands of their Icelandic visitors on Thursday would hardly aid the manager, Stuart McCall, as he carries on his grand search for needles in haystacks. Or rather, a good quality centre-half and centre-forward who will fit into his budget.

"I can remember sitting on the bench in absolute shock in Bratislava," recalled McManus. "You don't want a repeat of anything like that. It got me my chance and one good thing for us at Celtic was that we were able to concentrate solely on the league and we went on to win it.

"Here, we won't have that to fall back on and it would be massive for the club to get through in Europe. There are financial implications. The club will be looking for us to get into the next round but, as players, we want the season to be going on with European football part of it."

Stjarnan are currently second in the Icelandic top flight behind FH Hafnarfjordur after 11 matches - the two teams played out a 2-2 draw yesterday, although Hafnarfjordur were reduced to 10 men - and McManus is mindful of the difficulties involved in facing teams already well into their domestic obligations. "I've been here before and you're going into games and not really playing on the front foot," he said. "It could have been a lot worse, though. We could have lost to Aberdeen at the end of last season and been back playing competitively two weeks ago."

Motherwell will have benefited from a weekend run-out against Fulham at Fir Park, although they played second-fiddle to the Sky Bet Championship team for most of the game and lost some appalling goals.

The first came when Cameron Burgess, the Scotland under-20 defender, was given a free header from a corner and the second is one that goalkeeper Dan Twardzik will prefer to forget. He got both hands to a speculative long-range shot from Chris David only to allow the ball to bounce behind him and over the goal-line.

The appearances of Dom Thomas, Chris Cadden, Lee Erwin and Jack Leitch as second-half substitutes also provided clear evidence of just how short of experience this Motherwell side are.

"We're bare, but it's always bare here," said McManus. "We've done well bringing Dan Twardzik in and keeping Lionel Ainsworth, but I still think we need a couple more to kick on. Look at Aberdeen: they had a good season last year and they've done their business early. For us to be challenging in the top four, we need to bring in a couple."

Compared to recent summers, Motherwell are enjoying relative continuity with the only players to have left since last term being James McFadden, Henri Anier and Shaun Hutchinson.

The defender returned to Fir Park on Saturday as a Fulham player, as did erstwhile Motherwell striker Ross McCormack. Hutchinson was still optimistic about the future for his former side.

"As long as Stuart McCall is in charge, they've a great chance," he said. "I'm sure they will have another great season."

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