On a glittering evening in Castille on Wednesday night, Manchester United are pitted against Real Madrid, the nine-time champions of Europe, the team shaped by Jose Mourinho and sharpened by Cristiano Ronaldo, the ultimate “acid test’’ according to Sir Alex Ferguson.
Home fires may burn brightly for Ferguson’s side, casting a warm glow on a 12-point lead in the Premier League, but this is Europe, this is a class apart, a challenge to be confronted. This is a game that defines seasons. On a night of many stars, there is so much to be proved.
Can David De Gea answer his critics, indicate he fulfils Manchester United’s demanding requirements, and show he is the next Iker Casillas? Can Wayne Rooney change contemptuous, and unfounded, local views of him? Can Robin van Persie rise to the occasion in a land where he was sent off on his last visit (with Arsenal at Barcelona in 2011)? Can Cristiano Ronaldo punish those he once cherished? And can Mourinho turn the tide of opinion back his way?
Even Ferguson strode into town with questions to deal with. Even at 71, and emboldened by the experience of 188 Champions League games, Ferguson must demonstrate he can deal tactically with Mourinho, a serial nemesis who has lost only twice to him in 14 meetings.
For regular observers of Ferguson, and particularly those who note how he goes through the motions when discussing Premier League games, it was impossible to ignore the excited look in his eyes at the prospect of taking on Mourinho, Ronaldo and the Bernabéu. This is the acid test for him as a manager. Ferguson arrived in Madrid on a mission.
He is here to attack. A stalemate will not suit him. Ferguson has been down this road before, running into a cul-de-sac after holding Monaco (in 1998) and Real (in 2000) to scoreless draws away from home.
He will unleash Rooney and Van Persie, hunting away goals. He believed in his players to progress, even to win the trophy. “Yes, I think so,’’ said Ferguson, sitting in the Bernabéu, clearly loving his august surrounds.
“They have great spirit about them. People say they are not as good as the teams of the past, but sometimes people have foggy recollections of teams of the past. I do myself. But this team doesn’t know when it is beaten.
“I cannot think of failing. When I started as a coach, I dreamed of playing these teams. Real have won the trophy nine times, but that is probably a bit beyond me [with two], but you never know! They are a great counter-attacking team, but we have to play our own game and attack and that can cause some chaos and late drama in our games.’’
Drama is in the script on Wednesday night. It usually is when Mourinho is among the plotters. The Special One finds himself hemmed in by many critics at the Bernabéu, stiffening doubts about his future, and he certainly went early on Valentine’s Day greetings by dispatching billets-doux to potential employers in the Premier League.
“I will go back to England after Real Madrid,’’ he said. “I love everything [about England]. England will be my next step.”
Mourinho really is a bit of a flirt. Faced with a room containing the main English media outlets, he all but handed out his CV. There were echoes of his “not from a bottle” introduction at Stamford Bridge in 2004. “There are some great clubs and some great managers in the world who have never won the Champions League,” remarked Mourinho on Tuesday.
“Real Madrid have won nine, I’ve won two. I don’t think I will end my career with only two Champions League titles.”
Mourinho is inevitably linked with a return to Chelsea and also replacing Roberto Mancini at Manchester City but there is always the feeling that he would love the chance to be considered as Ferguson’s successor. Once again on Tuesday, he intensified the charm offensive towards United and Ferguson. Asked if he could follow Ferguson, Mourinho replied: “I don’t believe so. I think we have to end our career at the same time. Him at 90 and me at 70.” Such flattery.
Mourinho picks many fights in football but never with Ferguson.
An hour later, United’s manager smiled at all this talk of his succession when he looked ready for an extended innings. “It’s against the law to force retirement. I won’t be working until 90, believe me. Jose will work until 70, just as I’ve done. I am enjoying my work and as long as I am, I’ll carry on.”
Asked whether Mourinho could become the best of all time, the Scot lobbed a few bouquets back the Portuguese’s way. “He has 20 years to catch me and it’s quite possible he could catch my record.”
All this backslapping and present-giving ends at the first whistle from Felix Brych on Wednesday evening.
Ferguson has to set the right trap for Ronaldo otherwise Mourinho will outwit him again.
“He is at the peak of his career now,’’ reflected Ferguson of Ronaldo. “He was a young man when he left Manchester United, but he has flourished and his goalscoring is phenomenal.’’ And some. Ronaldo has scored 182 goals in 179 games for Real, taking him alongside Gento in the Real scoring charts. Only Hugo Sanchez (208), Ferenc Puskas (242), Carlos Santillana (290), Alfredo Di Stefano (308) and Raul (323) lie ahead.
“He is the most fantastic player I have ever had,’’ said Mourinho. “He is a player from another world, another planet.’’
Ferguson’s ability to devise a strategy to shackle Ronaldo could define this tie. Ferguson could detail Phil Jones for a man-marking role or instruct Rafael to stick tight. Whoever, whatever, the advice is simple: press Ronaldo early, do not let him turn, do not dive in and do not risk free-kicks.
Real fans will howl for sanctions from the referee. A glance at the logbook of Brych confirms he will book and dismiss early, as Peter Crouch deservedly discovered on Spurs duty here with stupid lunges at Sergio Ramos and Marcelo.
Brych also sent off Nemanja Vidic for a challenge on Otelul Galati’s Gabriel Giurgiu in 2011, a decision that Ferguson described as “harsh”.
Such lessons require heeding. For Wednesday evening is the acid test, the need for restraint and risk-taking in equal measure.