Yesterday the Manchester United manager could not have been more different. Sitting in Old Trafford's VIP lounge, facing a media battery of 11 television crews and more than 50 journalists, he spoke in such a whisper that only those in the front row could hear him clearly. He was so subdued you wondered if the enormity of tonight's European Champions' Cup semi-final, first leg against Juventus had got to him.
The reality is that he was trying to strike that difficult balance between showing confidence and arrogance, and respect rather than fear, aware that a wrong word could be used to deflate his team or inflame the opposition. He was certainly careful not to repeat the derogatory comments about Italians that led Uefa, football's governing body, to fine him pounds 2,200 after the quarter-final with Internazionale. In response to a question on the subject from an Italian journalist, he insisted he had spoken in jest. That is unlikely, since Ferguson generally thinks carefully about his public comments.
Yesterday he indirectly played down the influence of Zinedine Zidane, who is expected to play after injury, and Carlo Ancelotti, the new coach at Juventus, by stressing how relieved he was at not having to face the skills of the injured Alessandro Del Piero or the wiles of the departed coach, Marcello Lippi.
He said nothing about tonight's referee but that was probably because he has full confidence in Manuel Diaz Vega. England fans may remember the Spaniard for giving a harsh penalty against Stuart Pearce in the opening match of Euro 96, but United recall his impressive displays in their matches away to Fenerbahce and Monaco.
Instead Ferguson concentrated on his own team. Jaap Stam, also fit to play, had been in "fantastic form"; Roy Keane was "a very influential player". He could have gone through the entire eleven for United: unbeaten in 20 matches since mid-December, they are fit and flying. "We're really up for this one," Keane said.
"If we start well we have a fabulous chance," Ferguson added.
And so they do, but Juventus must not be underrated. They speak favourably of United. "We have to score," said Antonio Conte. "If we get beaten 2-0 like Inter it will be the end. Finito. You cannot come back from that score against United."
Angelo Di Livio added his own paean of praise. "In all the time we played under Lippi United were the only team who made us feel inferior."
But, stressed Conte, Juventus have been here before. This is their fourth successive European Cup semi-final, and they have won the previous three.
Ten of their likely line-up played in the final in Amsterdam last year. Three of them, the goalkeeper, Angelo Peruzzi, Didier Deschamps and Di Livio, played in all three finals. By contrast, this United have played one semi-final, which they lost, two years ago. "Strange things happen to players in these matches," said Conte. "Some grow, some disappear."
Ferguson noted: "They have experience. They keep their heads and they have scored a few away goals." The crucial away goal - denied to Inter, conceded to Monaco and Dortmund, United's conquerors in the last two seasons: Juventus expect to get one.
"They are an extremely good side," said Filippo Inzaghi of United, "but they let you play. Inter had plenty of chances, even at Old Trafford."
Given chances, Inzaghi will convert one and he will need to be closely watched by Stam. So, too, will Zidane, even if not fully fit. He is likely to play in an advanced role, which could lead to United including Ronny Johnsen to pick him up rather than Henning Berg.
Such individual contests will be repeated all over the field: David Beckham against the experienced Gianluca Pessotto; Dwight Yorke against the muscular Paolo Montero; and, most crucially of all, Keane and Paul Scholes confronting Edgar Davids and Deschamps. The quartet are all on a yellow card each, and it will be a surprise if all are available for the second leg in Turin.
Juventus, like United, are unbeaten in this year's competition despite scraping through the group stages and almost going out to Olympiakos in the previous round. It is, admitted Ancelotti, "not a champagne Juventus". However, he added, it has "character and experience".
What it should no longer have is an aura of invincibility. United beat Juve at Old Trafford last season and outplayed them in Turin. They have the ability to win and both they and Juventus know it. The reverse also applies, so it will come down to who performs closest to their potential. United should win, but they are unlikely to put the tie out of reach.Reuse content