Rio Ferdinand: Manchester United defender gets Real ahead of showdown in Madrid
The United defender tells Simon Hart why he is focusing on facing old friend Cristiano Ronaldo next week – and wants revenge over Spanish giants
Rio Ferdinand can't half shout. Even first thing on a Monday morning. The cameras are rolling in the interview suite at Carrington, Manchester United's impressively appointed training ground, and Ferdinand is in pleasingly reflective mode, but when voices come through the wall behind him, he quickly raises his own a good few decibels and calls for quiet.
It is a reminder of the other Rio: that this laid-back, thoughtful fellow with long limbs stretched out in front of him in his United training kit, happens also to be one of the most commanding defenders of his generation, and still the most expensive in British football history. For more than a decade Ferdinand has been at the heart of the United team and all the clamour, and glamour that surrounds them.
Next week he will be featuring in one of this season's starriest storylines, with United meeting Real in Madrid in the Champions League round of 16. His past experiences have taught him the importance of the match. He recalls the words shared with Sir Bobby Charlton on a rainy night in Moscow in May 2008 after he had just won the Champions League. "I remember standing at the bottom of the stairs waiting to go up and Sir Bobby came over and said a few nice, kind words – just enjoy the moment and stuff. Then it hit home, the history and that he's been there, he's done this, he knows what it's like and he's had the time to come out and speak to me before I go up and lift the trophy. It almost got a bit emotional.
"It was so loud and so much was going on, everyone jumping around, and he took it down a notch or two and it just hit home when he spoke to me, the enormity of what we'd achieved."
And so to Madrid. "It'll be a game that everyone will be tuning into because there's so much attached to it," he acknowledges – not least Cristiano Ronaldo's reunion with his former team-mates. Ferdinand admits that the friendly text messages between the two have dried up of late. "We've had a few texts, but when you get into a situation like this when you're coming up against a friend, all the texts and the conversations go to one side and you don't really speak until you actually get the game over and done with."
That said, he predicts a "fantastic reception" for Real's Portuguese icon at Old Trafford on 5 March in the return leg. "The fans appreciated him when he was here and since he's been gone they sing his name. He came here a young boy and left a world-class player. He showed a lot of respect when he left and still does."
Ferdinand and Co know Ronaldo's game better than anybody but can that help them stop him? "You get as many people around the ball when he's got it as possible!" he says with a laugh. "But no, Madrid are that good a side you have to make sure you're set up right and that your team are in good positions all over the pitch to defend. That is the most important thing.
"There are going to be times in the game that you're going to be left one-on-one with Ronaldo and other strikers that they've got, and we've got to be capable of defending and doing well in those situations. And I think the team that does best in those situations will come out of it victorious."
Along with Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, Ferdinand is a survivor of United's last meeting with Madrid, when they succumbed to Vicente del Bosque's galacticos in the 2002-03 quarter-final. They lost 3-1 at the Bernabeu before a 4-3 victory in a "crazy game" in Manchester featuring a famous hat-trick from another Ronaldo. "The away game – they really played us off the park if I'm honest," Ferdinand remembers. And then at our place Ronaldo scored a hat-trick. I thought our keeper [Fabien Barthez] could have done better to be honest," he smiles, "but he scored a hat-trick and Becks [David Beckham] got two that night as well."
Ferdinand's abiding memory is of the trouble he had trying to stop the "brilliant" Raul. "Raul was just difficult to get up against. He played off [the front] and asked you the question: 'Do you want to come in here and mark me? If you come in here someone else will run in the space that you leave or I'll just get it, turn and play it in the space that you leave.' In terms of making you think, he definitely was the most intelligent player I've played against."
Indeed, for Ferdinand, only Lionel Messi – a scorer in United's 2009 and 2011 Champions League final defeats to Barcelona – has proved as tough an opponent. "Messi, in the two Champions League finals we played against him, was the main difference really."
Those are not happy memories for United and they have kindled a determination to return to Wembley, venue for this year's final as it was two seasons ago, to make amends. "It'd be nice to go back there and put what happened last time right. We went there and we didn't give a great account of ourselves."
Quite what this United side are capable of remains to be seen. Disappointment stalked them last season, their first without a trophy since 2004 and one marked by the "embarrassment" of a Champions League group-stage exit. Ferdinand recognises that the current Premier League leaders have much to prove. "It is too early to judge this team. A few new players were bought in this summer and last year and I think we've got to win something until we can really judge ourselves against anyone else."
At least they appear to have tightened up defensively after an autumn in which they leaked goals freely. "We were conceding far too many goals but we were playing too open football and it wasn't really a compact unit as we've been used to. In the last month we've sorted that out a little bit. We're looking a lot stronger."
This being United, though, they are unlikely to "park the bus" at the Bernabeu. "The way we play, we don't really alter our game too much for any opposition. We've got to be wary of a few things they're good at, and certain individuals, but we've got to make sure that we're right in our own game plan and the way we play and that when we do get the ball we make sure we put them under pressure." So same old United then? "Watch this space" is the concise reply. Millions certainly will.
A full version of this interview appears in 'Champions magazine', on sale now
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