Even when he is in a relatively supine mood, Sir Alex Ferguson has a talent for finding the weak spot of an opponent and when it comes to Chelsea, his foremost domestic rival of the last eight years, it is not difficult to press the right buttons.
For Chelsea, and their owner Roman Abramovich in particular, winning the Champions League has, in Ferguson's words, become an “obsession” and it is difficult to argue with him.
It is an obsession that Ferguson freely admits he shared himself before he cleared the hurdle of the first triumph in 1999 — “a monkey off my back” — so he knows better than anyone else how much it must gnaw away at Chelsea.
It was there in the first leg at Stamford Bridge when the United fans periodically unfurled a banner proclaiming “Viva John Terry”, their reference to his missed penalty at the Luzhniki Stadium in the Champions League final in Moscow three years ago.
And carefully though he broached the topic yesterday, there was no doubting that this was Ferguson's gentle reminder to
Chelsea that another year without winning the Champions League is another year spent outside the elite of European football.
“I can agree that it seems it has become an obsession with them to win the European Cup,” Ferguson said. “That is certainly why they signed Fernando Torres in January. There is no question of that in my mind. That is an obvious reason for signing the lad.
“Abramovich, the owner, has very much nailed his colours to the mast in that respect — I've felt that for quite a while with him. But at the end of the day it is a very difficult competition to win. All the best teams are there. You see the form of Barcelona at the moment? It's fantastic. It looks like it is going to be Barcelona and Real Madrid in the semi-finals — can you imagine what that is going to be like?
“It is a fantastic competition. But to have an obsession on winning the European Cup, that is stretching yourself a wee bit.”
When Abramovich came to the Premier League in 2003 and bought a club outside the usual dominant group, he made a clear statement that he intended to take on the elite of English football. And the key figure in that elite is Ferguson who, at times, especially in 2005, looked as vulnerable as he had for 15 years. Yet, almost eight years on and the old boy stands between the Russian billionaire and his dream once again.
Over the past eight years, Abramovich has signed players that Ferguson had hoped to sign; poached Manchester United's chief executive (although it is debatable how much that affected Ferguson) and his club have won three Premier League titles. He has spent almost £1bn on trying to make Chelsea into a more successful club than United. And yet he comes to Old Trafford tonight as very much the underdog in what could be a familiar tale of woe for Chelsea.
It was that kind of talk that caused Ferguson to chide the room yesterday for what he perceived as a softening towards Chelsea as their season teeters on the brink.
“It's all or nothing for us as well by the way,” he said. “Make no mistake. You are all running away with sympathy for Chelsea at the moment. We need to win, believe me.
“I had that obsession with the Champions League myself for a long time. When we lost the semi-final against Borussia Dortmund [in 1997], I thought we were never going to do it.
“When we won in Barcelona in 1999 it was the greatest feeling of all time and it took the monkey off my back a bit. So you can understand it [Chelsea's obsession] but it doesn't make Chelsea any more desperate than Manchester United, believe me. We will be desperate to win that game.”
Ferguson must decide whether to recall Nani tonight while Rafael is doubtful with a knee injury and John O'Shea would be the automatic replacement if the Brazilian fails to make it.
l IN tonight’s other quarter-final, Barcelona travel to Shakhtar Donetsk holding a commanding 5-1 lead from the first leg at the Camp Nou and should set up a likely semi-final with Real Madrid.