Fanatical Ferguson strives to guide United past their semi-final frontier
It took a few deep breaths and a sip of water before he composed himself but, as ever with Sir Alex Ferguson, as quick as his temper surfaced yesterday so it seemed to pass.
He had just held forth on the form of his Manchester United team with the passion and rage of the Ferguson of old; and he had only just checked himself in time to prevent some of that noxious industrial language spilling forth in the prim, anodyne setting of a Uefa Champions League press conference.
Ferguson keeps the temper under control these days – more's the pity – but he sailed close to the wind when it was suggested that, with the defeat to Chelsea taken into consideration, his team have hit the wall this season. "I'm not concerned the season is beginning to affect the team," he said. "I think we should be sitting here as league champions. I think decisions have gone against us, bad decisions have gone against us.
"But we are sitting here at this very moment, it doesn't matter about the decisions in the past. When we started out in the League in August, it was to win the League. We signed up to play 38 league matches, and we are going to play 38 league matches. And if it means we have to win the last two games to win the League, then so be it.
"Where we are now is sitting here with two games left. It doesn't matter if we've had 50 penalty kicks turned down, or 50 given to us, or terrible performances, or great performances. We have a semi-final, a home game on Saturday [against West Ham] and a game against Wigan away [in the League]. Disaster."
It hardly needs pointing out that the last word was delivered with snarling sarcasm. In his autobiography, Gordon Strachan talked of Ferguson, his manager at Aberdeen and United, being racked by a nervous cough around big games. But this was not nerves. When Ferguson defended his team selection against Chelsea it was such a polished performance you could imagine him rehearsing it in his head as he drove to Old Trafford that morning.
The record books say that Ferguson should fear the semi-final of this competition much more than the final. With the tie goalless from the first leg, should he fail to progress at home to Barcelona tonight then it will be the fourth occasion he has lost at this stage in 14 attempts at the Champions League. Busby also reached the semi-final five times – albeit in five attempts – and lost four times. It is in danger of becoming the gap Ferguson's teams cannot bridge and, for a man as driven and intolerant of failure as the United manager, that is not something he is prepared to accept.
Of all those semi-final defeats – 1997, 2002 and 2007 – few can have hurt as much as the lesson dealt Ferguson's team by Milan in San Siro last year. Then they were taught that there was a wiser, fresher, better team in Europe than them. This season United are undoubtedly the team to beat in Europe, they have the best player in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo, and it is has never felt more like their moment in history has arrived. Just as Barcelona's did two years' earlier. All of which will only make a defeat for Ferguson tonight even more painful.
Defending his decision to leave out Ronaldo and Patrice Evra against Chelsea on Saturday there was a more plaintive aspect to Ferguson's defence, like a man who is justifying an impossible decision. "Playing Tuesday night after a lunchtime kick-off there is no way I could have played the same team. I had to decide where I could get the best freshness and give my team the best chance of a European final because that is the best incentive for any player," he said.
Later, as if to reassure himself, Ferguson said "At the end of the day I've called it correctly. It's a well-balanced game." He did not linger long on the point that his side traditionally perform badly in the Champions League when they fail to score in the away leg, whether that is the first or second of the two games. In fact on six out of seven occasions since 1994, when United have failed to score in the away leg of a tie they have been eliminated. Instead he preferred to remember the 3-2 victory in Turin over Juventus in the 1999 semi-final second leg, a "sensational victory".
You can see Ferguson's point. These are the history of different teams and different players and what has, among other things, sustained his extraordinary career is that unquenchable belief in his side's ability to seize the moment. He seems to be encouraged by the possibility that Frank Rijkaard's team could be just as cavalier as his own tonight and that at least United will not be up against a side of the cunning and, dare one say it, cynicism of the Milan team that conquered them last year.
"I don't think Barcelona can change," Ferguson said when he was asked whether Rijkaard's side might abandon their devil-may-care attacking approach. "They play the same system, they play the same way. They try to get you on that passing carousel, try to get you dizzy. And you have to be patient. They are what they are, and we are not short of that knowledge about them. I don't know how many times I've watched Barcelona, I enjoy watching them. But it's the same all the time, they play their football and they won't change."
The question should United fail tonight is where do they go from here? They seem to have been building towards this moment to reassert themselves since the dynamic changed in English football in the summer of 2003, a summer in which the cycle of this particular team began with the arrival of Ronaldo and departure of David Beckham. Since then they have seen off Arsenal's invincibles and Roman Abramovich's Chelsea to clamber back to the top of the heap and if it is not to be this season for the Champions League then when? You get the impression Ferguson thinks so too beneath the exterior that still refuses to yield an inch.
Rooney and Vidic miss training to cast doubt on Barça duty
Wayne Rooney and Nemanja Vidic are both serious doubts for tonight's Champions League second leg tie against Barcelona after both of them were in too much pain from their respective injuries to train properly yesterday. Vidic did not even attend Carrington, Manchester United's training ground, while Rooney, who has hurt his hip, was finding it difficult to walk. Rooney has been carrying the injury since the game against Blackburn on 19 April and was noticeably discomfited before and after scoring United's goal against Chelsea on Saturday.
Vidic lost a tooth and bit through his lip when he was kneed in the face by Didier Drogba during the same game. With the worries that accompany any head injury it is debatable whether the defender will even be able to take a place on the bench.
Should Sir Alex Ferguson have to cope without Vidic he could well deploy Owen Hargreaves again at right-back after the midfielder played there for 75 minutes of the game against Chelsea. In all likelihood that would mean a starting place for Anderson in the centre of midfield. Missing Rooney creates more problems for Ferguson who would be forced to deploy Carlos Tevez up front leaving him with little in the way of impact substitutes.
United's previous 0-0 away draws
Manchester United have twice drawn 0-0 away in the first leg of a Champions League tie. Both times they were knocked out.
In March 1998 in the quarter-finals, the United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, celebrating his 50th European game, was instrumental in keeping out Jean Tigana’s Monaco side at the Stade Louis II, despite the best efforts of Thierry Henry and Co.
In the return leg, however, David Trezeguet scored a sixth-minute belter for the visitors and United, missing the injured Schmeichel, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs, were always chasing the game. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer equalised eight minutes into the second half but Teddy Sheringham and David Beckham missed chances and Monaco held on.
In April 2000, again in the quarter-finals, Mark Bosnich performed heroics for the holders against Real Madrid in the first-leg draw at the Bernebeu, making fine saves from Raul, Steve McManaman and Roberto Carlos.
Raul ruled the roost in Real’s|3-2 win at Old Trafford, however. An own goal by Keane after 20 minutes set Real on their way, and two goals in as many minutes from Raul early in the second half looked to have finished off United. Beckham drifted past three defenders to score a stirring goal in the 64th minute, but although Sir Alex Ferguson brought on Sheringham and Solskjaer, his last-minute heroes from the 1999 final, a Paul Scholes penalty two minutes from time was United’s last hurrah.