The last time Manchester United played in Europe's least illustrious competition, John Major was Prime Minister and their goals, in a draw against Rotor Volgograd, came from Peter Schmeichel and a 20-year-old Paul Scholes. They lost the first-round tie on away goals.
Last night, as he contemplated the prospect of his side becoming only the fourth to win all three European club competitions, Sir Alex Ferguson's only concern about Scholes was that he might be so buoyed by his comeback that he will re-consider resuming an England career. "Do you really honestly believe that?" was his response to the suggestion that the 37-year-old might do so. "I don't think there's any chance of that. I think his reason for refusing [an England comeback] last time was that [the request] came late in the day. But two years on... to go back again.. I think Paul will be concentrating [on United] if he decides to go on of course."
Ferguson said they had not discussed Scholes going on but it certainly felt rather less than a hypothetical notion, as he spoke. Indeed, the only moment Ferguson seemed lost for words last night was when it came to defining the difference Scholes' return has meant to him. "It's hard to describe it," he said after a remarkably long pause. "It's like Barcelona talking about Xavi in the way we talk about Scholes."
United, likely to be led by Rio Ferdinand tonight, might well have been heading into the Champions League again had Scholes not packed up, and as Ferguson contemplated joining Ajax, Bayern Munich and Juventus as winners of all three club competitions, he seemed to admit that his squad rotation in the elite competition had been a mistake. "I think that we were depending on our previous form in group stages in the Champions League, we were making changes each year and it was working fine for us – because our home record was so good," he said. "But we threw it away against Basel. That caught us short, to be honest with you."
He said that "there's a final in Romania. I want to be there and the players want to be there" and the only player rested – with Ryan Giggs, Chris Smalling and Dimitar Berbatov unfit to travel – is Patrice Evra, after that high-intensity encounter with Luis Suarez and Liverpool. "I think it was an emotional weekend for him. I think it was the right thing to do [to leave him out," said Ferguson , who also tried to salve the wounds of the titanic collision. "Both [ Liverpool and United] have got great history and rivalry," he said. "Sometimes we lose, sometimes we win, but we both need each other." The Ajax manager Frank de Boer, who sold Suarez to Liverpool, yesterday described him as "a winner... who sometimes does some stupid things."
United were held up at Manchester Airport because Luis Nani and Danny Welbeck forgot their passports. But Wayne Rooney was purposeful, at a stadium where his last club appearance – against Porto in the Amsterdam Tournament six years ago – saw him dismissed for a hand in the face of Pepe. It was his third dismissal in 11 months but last night he could reflect on one yellow card all season. "As a player I feel I've matured on the pitch as a player – maybe cut out some silly bookings I did get in the past," Rooney said. "So I hope that can continue."
Ferguson grinned. "Don't speak too soon," he said.