Belfast Telegraph

Manchester United boss still smarting from Barcelona beating

By Ian Herbert

He climbed to the Press conference table and dealt out the diplomacies, just as he has in his 17 previous Champions League campaigns. A nod to the threat of Benfica's Pablo Aimar and the club's European pedigree. A smile and a handshake for the translator.

But the elephant in the room was another football club beginning and ending with the letters ‘B' and 'A.'

From now until the spring, Barcelona are the only genuine question where United are concerned. Whether the 69-year-old's re-engineered young side are somehow capable of bridging the gulf which was exposed last May at Wembley.

“It's the first game. Give me a break will you. Give me a break,” Ferguson replied when the question was put to him but Ryan Giggs was more forthcoming and more blunt about the challenge which might lie ahead.

Lionel Messi is “probably the best player over the last 20 years,” said Giggs, one of five of the older United players who may finally get a chance to muscle out the youngsters in the opening Group C match tonight.

Pep Guardiola's side will also carry more confidence into the tournament, by dint of their two final triumphs over United, he added.

Ferguson mellowed and finally discussed the issue, though his old theme about the need for United to become one of the five-time winners who make an indelible mark on the tournament was less forceful than usual.

“It's different winning the Champions League today than it was 30 years ago because all the best teams are in it now,” he said, reeling off the list of sides who will stand in his way between now and Munich, next May 12.

For now Ferguson, whose side are unbeaten away from home in Europe for 18 months and did not concede a goal in 540 minutes on the road before the final in the last campaign, can at least witness the fear his young side carry onto the continent.

The Estadio da Luz holds omens for Wayne Rooney, whose 2004 European Championships ended with a broken metatarsal in the first half of England's quarter-final with Portugal.

But Rooney, with his 10 goals in six competitive games, carries a far bigger omen in the stadium.

The Benfica manager Jorge Jesus showed no hesitation last night in declaring Rooney to be the prime Premier League threat, in an assessment of the striker's skills which concluded with Ferguson suggesting that the prime reason why he could not be compared to Pele was the colour of his skin.

“He's white, completely white,” Ferguson grinned.

Jesus declared that Rooney “looks like he is the best British player so far.

He doesn't look like a British player but an Argentinian or Brazilian. He can decide a match in the last third of the field.”

For once, Ferguson — who suggested that Rooney was aiming to beat his previous best season tally of 34 goals from the 2009/10 campaign — departed from local consensus.

“I disagree with him,” he replied.

“I think he's a typical British player, but they're have been British players over the last few years, maybe for the last decades who have similar great qualities that makes them great players, whether it's a Gascoigne, George Best, Bobby Charlton, Denis Law, the similarities are that the boy has great courage, he wants to play all the time, he has incredible stamina. Brazilian?

“If you look at Pele for instance, he was a very aggressive attacker also who could look after himself, so can Rooney.

“They have similarities that way: strength, speed, determination.”

The United manager, who has left Rio Ferdinand at home with a hamstring injury, knows that one man can't beat Barcelona alone. Rooney was his best player last May at Wembley, scoring the goal which give his side brief, unrealistic hope.

“If that's the target this season and he gets to that, then I'll be absolutely delighted,” Ferguson concluded of the 34-goal target.

But in reality it will be the bigger, single more unattainable goal that will be tearing at the United manager.

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