There was something faintly regal about the way Sir Alex Ferguson spoke, in the third person, yesterday about the prospect of collecting 10 Premier League titles, only 15 years after bringing Manchester United's barren era to an end. "Life is full of challenges and we have always relished those challenges and accepted them, though this one isn't over yet," he said after training in London ahead of the match which he does not deny is United's most important of a long season.
Ferguson has also been long enough in the game to place Chelsea's 100-match unbeaten home record into perspective. "Somewhere along the line someone is going to beat them. That happens. Life is like that," he said. But no amount of experience can quite prepare a manager – not even Ferguson – for the task of trying to take his club one title short of Liverpool's golden 18 while maintaining the strength to push past Barcelona at Old Trafford, three days from now. "Mes que un club" (more than a club) reads the lettering on the Nou Camp's banked seats. In the space of 80 hours or so, from this lunchtime, Ferguson will discover whether he has "Mes que un equipo" (more than a team). He has said all along that this current collective squad – rather than any team he has assembled from it – is his greatest of all time. Here comes the test of that.
United flew into London on Thursday night after a light work out at Barcelona's Mini Estadi training ground and a "good rest" in the city, and Ferguson will certainly draw on the squad's depth with Barcelona in mind. "We will obviously need to freshen up a couple of positions," he said. Nemanja Vidic seems likely to return from his stomach infection and it would be logical if Paul Scholes, a player for big European occasions, were rested along with Edwin van der Sar. Anderson or Ryan Giggs might come in.
Time has certainly not been on Ferguson's side. He has been disgruntled for some weeks about being asked to play at the earliest conceivable time after the exertions of the Nou Camp and there were signs yesterday that it had even affected his maths. "Chelsea have had four days' rest and we have had two and a half! That day makes a hell of a difference," he said. "If you shake hands with the devil [the TV companies] you can't complain."
This is the weekend in the calendar when United's comeback at Goodison last season took them a huge step towards the title and saw Ferguson perform a touchline jig. It was all over a week later when Jose Mourinho's charges could only muster a 1-1 draw at Arsenal. The Stamford Bridge fixture followed a few days later, with Chelsea providing a guard of honour for the understrength team Ferguson sent out, with the forthcoming FA Cup final in mind. How Ferguson would love to go one better and claim the trophy from beneath Roman Abramovich's nose. He was circumspect about that yesterday – the pre-match jousting has certainly lost its colour with Mourinho gone – but Wayne Rooney was prepared to admit that effectively winning the trophy at Stamford Bridge today would be sweet.
"It would be nice to win the league at your rival's stadium," Rooney said. "We need to go there and make sure we play well."
But United, for all their depth, are lumbering rather than striding into the final furlong, this time around. They should have lost at Middlesbrough, might have lost at Blackburn, might have drawn at Derby and their recent track record at Chelsea – no wins in six years – hardly suggests that their indifferent away form since their 3-0 win at Fulham on 1 March will improve this lunchtime. That has left Ferguson simply looking for the restoration of some basic United qualities after the Nou Camp. "We have to recover our passing ability a bit better," he said. "That was one area that let us down this week. We will get back to that."
Reminded of United's fearsome goal difference which makes the title winnable even after a defeat today, he insisted that "you cannot go into the game thinking you have some leeway." No doubt he is perhaps mindful that West Ham, a perennial bogey team at the season's end, will be at Old Trafford after Barcelona have left. A disastrous 1-0 defeat against them shattered his side's hopes in April 1992, the year Leeds took the title, while three years later a 1-1 draw against the same side handed the title to Blackburn. All part of the baggage he must take into this period.
"This is undoubtedly the biggest game of the season because, quite simply, none of the ones that have gone previously can measure up to what can be achieved tomorrow," Ferguson said. Rio Ferdinand, whose midweek performance underlined why Blackburn Rovers manager Mark Hughes is among those who consider him United's outstanding player this season, knows his manager well enough to realise that Barcelona, as well as Chelsea, will be playing on his mind today.
"If we lose the game against Barcelona next week everyone will say we're not as good as people are saying," he said. "If we win we'll get the plaudits we deserve; if we don't we'll get the criticism we probably deserve. If you're a betting man it wouldn't be easy to put your money on anyone. We know that."