Sir Alex Ferguson backs Manchester United to stifle threat from Cristiano Ronaldo
Can it really be nine years since Sir Alex Ferguson was upstaged in the pre-match Champions League press conference at Old Trafford by a young coach whose side led Manchester United 2-1 from their Champions League last 16 first leg, and would go on to eliminate them the following night?
Then Jose Mourinho was famous only in Portugal, which is to say he was not very famous at all, at least not in comparison to the standing he has now in the game, having won two Champions League titles and six league titles – in four different countries –among 16 trophies since that day he conquered United with Porto.
Back then it was all about Ferguson's mind games which he tried unsuccessfully that season to train on Arsène Wenger's runaway champions Arsenal and which also seemed to have little effect on Mourinho. The then 41-year-old delighted in United's anger that Porto's goalkeeper Vitor Baia had conspired to get Roy Keane sent off in the first leg and hammed up his side's status as underdogs in the game.
Nowadays, the relationship between the two men is much more cordial. Since that night when Costinha scored a late equaliser against United and Porto progressed to the quarter-finals 3-2 on aggregate, the two men have faced each other a further 14 times. Mourinho has earned his right to stand alongside Ferguson in trophies, as well as longevity and in the head-to head has six wins to the United manager's three with the other six draws.
Naturally tonight so much comes down to the talented individuals in either side. One piece of brilliance from Cristiano Ronaldo, who was in the United team that faced Porto nine years ago, or Robin van Persie could be enough to decide a tie that is beautifully poised at 1-1. But these are also two enormous managerial egos whose belief in their own judgement is unwavering and who will bring their own tactical acumen to bear on the match.
While Mourinho's team as good as picks itself, with the same side that beat Barcelona 3-1 at the Nou Camp in the Copa del Rey second leg last week likely to start, there is more choice for Ferguson. He will have to select from one of two centre-backs, Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans, to partner Rio Ferdinand. He has Tom Cleverley, Ryan Giggs and Anderson to choose from to play alongside Michael Carrick in the holding roles, with Phil Jones injured.
And that is before we get to the front four. Van Persie is a certainty to start; so too, you imagine, Danny Welbeck who was only a substitute against Norwich City on Saturday and excellent in the first leg at the Bernabeu. Shinji Kagawa has to have a chance of starting after his hat-trick against Norwich.
Then there is Wayne Rooney. There have been suggestions that Ferguson could be prepared to leave the Englishman on the United bench tonight, partly in favour of a more effective way of dealing with the threat from Ronaldo down the left side and partly in response to Rooney's form pre-Norwich. As ever with Ferguson it is, in his own words, never wise to try "to read the mind of a madman".
Yesterday, Ferguson insisted that his team would not try to adapt to the Ronaldo threat. "If we go about worrying about the damage Cristiano Ronaldo can do to us we will forget some of the things we can do ourselves," he said. Given that United adapted their shape against Everton last month to permit Jones to do a man-marking job on Marouane Fellaini, it is not impossible they might do so again.
"If you are preparing for a game of football at this level then you have to pay respect to the strengths of the other team," Ferguson said. "We do that on every occasion, working on the shape of the team, the tactics, who the best players are.
"That's only doing your job and applies itself [tonight]. But we also know the strength of our own team. That's the normal pattern of what we are. We know our strengths and how we want to play. We know how to go about these games and, hopefully, it helps us."
Ferguson is no stranger to the tactical flourish or the selection curveball that catches the opposition by surprise when they are handed the team sheet. He said yesterday that he was yet to make up a final decision on the side. "I've not made up my mind what the motivation or tactical talk will be but part of it will be about trusting themselves," he said.
That trust is well-founded because, for all Madrid's wealth and power, they have enjoyed nothing like the success United have had in the Champions League since the two teams last met in 2003. United have reached three finals in the last 10 years, winning once. Madrid, who were defending champions in 2003, and had won it three times in the previous five seasons, have since only made the semi-finals twice, in the last two years.
"I think we must trust them, as we always do. Trust these players. They all trust each other, that's why they have had continued success over a long, long period. The continuity of the management has helped. The coaching staff, myself, all the back-room staff, we're all acquainted with all the things you need to relate to footballers, whether on the physical side, nutritional side or the tactical side. We have the equipment to deal with all these things."
The message was that, although they might be up against the nine-times winners of this competition, United under Ferguson have been winning big games like this one for years. Stability? Yes, but that does not mean that the man in charge is averse to picking a team that can catch everyone out.
Belfast Telegraph Digital