Time for United to come of age, says Ferguson
If the airport check-in was anything to go by, then the players most eager to be back in Barcelona were those present on Manchester United's last adventure in the city, on a certain heady spring evening in May 1999. Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, three of the four survivors from that occasion, were the first to roll up with their bags at Manchester Airport yesterday.
But their manager is not clinging to memories of that night, even if they are. Sir Alex Ferguson has not set foot in the Nou Camp since his side's European Cup triumph – "I've been here two or three times since, but just for short breaks, because it's a great city," he revealed after his players had arrived – and there have been no attempts to recreate the little routines his side set nine years ago.
The team's hotel, for instance, is in the city centre, and not out at Sitges on the coast as it was back then. And though Michael Carrick says the '99 alumni have been discussing with younger players what the night meant, that has had nothing to do with the manager. "I don't know what the players have said," Ferguson admitted. "That was 10 years ago. The team of today is the team of today. They don't need to worry about the past."
Ferguson views tonight's tie – comfortably the most attractive of the two semi-finals, he believes, and possibly the match that will yield the tournament's winner – in the context of last May, and that semi-final defeat in Milan that confirmed that his side were by no means the finished article.
"We were not ready for last season's game," he said. "We have had challenges in European football and sometimes we have failed them. You can't win a semi-final without showing your true mettle. But I am far more confident now."
After all the acclaim in a season in which United have so often been celebrated as the best in Europe,now comes the defining moment; a time to prove their worth. As Ferguson put it: "It's time to raise the bar, no question."
He has been here before so many times that he knows his players might easily blow it, for all the talk of Barcelona's indifferent season. United favourites? Rubbish, Ferguson said, and foremost in his mind yesterday, as has been so often in the years since, was the Champions League semi-final of 1997 against Borussia Dortmund. United lost both legs 1-0 and few games haunt him more than the return at Old Trafford.
Out popped thoughts of 2002, too, and the defeat at this same stage to an inferior Bayer Leverkusen. "Leverkusen and Dortmund we should have won," ruminated Ferguson, for the umpteenth time.
Ball retention and concentration are the overriding objectives on these overseas occasions and the areas where United have most developed, in Ferguson's view. It is what he focused on in training on Monday and where he expects to see a difference tonight. The benchmark for him, perhaps inevitably, is spring 1999 in Turin and the semi-final against Juventus when United, 2-0 down after a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford, won 3-2 thanks to a performance of such magnitude by Roy Keane that Ferguson said he considered it "an honour to be associated with such a player" that night.
A leader of Keane's magnitude is not among the riches at his disposal tonight. But again Ferguson is not looking back to '99. "We have moved on from those days," he said. "You look at the form of [Michael] Carrick and Anderson and how they have developed, you wouldn't have any fears. Rooney and Ronaldo are as good as the players we had in 1999. They play without fear." Is the current generation really ready, at last, to take the final step? Tonight will probably tell us.
On the detailed business of who might deal with Lionel Messi, Barcelona's most potent threat, Ferguson was less certain. "You can answer that one," he murmured, grinning at Nemanja Vidic, who had to admit the Argentine was "one of the best players in the world, one-on-one". Ferguson might deploy Wayne Rooney, recovered from Saturday's hip injury, on the left wing, as he did in Rome, to help Patrice Evra contend with Messi. But there is possibly an old nemesis to contend with, too. Thierry Henry trained yesterday morning, again last night, and may win his fight to recover something from a wretched season. There will also a reminder of past European frustrations if Deco, in the Porto side who eliminated United four years ago, gets a role.
United's defence might, as Johan Cruyff has suggested, look the weakest aspect against this armoury, but Ferguson has grounds to be confident about gaining the away goal he craves and, as he put it, doing "without the worry of not having scored" when Barcelona arrive in Manchester next week. The last time United failed to score away in Europe was in Milan last May.
This is a saint's day when both teams hope to find grounds for celebration – St George being patron saint of Catalunya, too – but above all Ferguson's rich sense of United's history in this city has convinced him that his side's moment has arrived again. The 4-0 group stage defeat here in 1994, when he arrived without a suspended Eric Cantona and depleted by the three-foreigners limit, may have been grim at the time but it was part of the club's education. "We know now that keeping the ball in Europe is very important and that day demonstrated that lesson," Ferguson said.
And then there was the 3-3 draw in the Nou Camp at the same stage that demonstrated the attacking beliefs that still define both clubs. "Looking back, there were periods when I thought we were going to lose 10-0 and periods when I thought we were going to win by 10," Ferguson enthused. "Boom boom boom... it was so open."
The season? 1998-99. There is no avoiding the era to which United are trying to live up.