Battle of the old masters gets very close to home

Friendship between Ferguson and Smith will survive cross-border clash
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Their careers crossed so often in the past that it is now a personal relationship that Walter Smith and Sir Alex Ferguson share. While the Champions' League draw was being made, the Manchester United manager had phoned his old friend to talk about their teams meeting; Smith could hear Cathy, Ferguson's wife, shouting in the background for him to at least wait until the draw was finished before making the call.

Archie Knox, who was assistant to Ferguson at Aberdeen, then Manchester United before leaving to work alongside Smith at Ibrox, says that very little separates the two men. Ferguson's temper is more visible and quick to engage, while Smith is less of a firebrand. But then the Rangers manager, with his fierce glare and physical presence, is still capable of imposing his authority without leaving room for dissent.

Both were born, raised in and shaped by the west of Scotland: Ferguson in Govan, the shipbuilding district of Glasgow, Smith in Carmyle, to the east of the city. Both were left unfulfilled by their playing careers, although Ferguson at least realised his dream of playing for Rangers, even if it ended acrimoniously.

And both were at the heart of the New Firm resurgence, when Aber-deen, under Ferguson, and Dundee United, managed by Jim McLean and his assistant Smith, overhauled the dominance of Rangers and Celtic as they won Scottish League titles in the early Eighties.

Ferguson, at United, and Smith, at Rangers, then took charge of clubs where supporters demand victories and trophies. But these shared obligations, not to mention the empathy and warmth of their relationship will be exposed to their competitive nature on Wednesday, when the teams meet at Ibrox in the Champions' League.

The Aberdeen and Dundee Unitedcoaching staffs used to play a Friday- evening five-a-side game, during which Ferguson and Smith's friendship was founded. In the Rangers manager's memory, Ferguson would bring groundstaff players along to provide his side with an edge; it is that refusal to accept an outcome other than his own victory that defines Ferguson.

Smith has it, too, but he still considers his old friend to be unique in the extent of his determination, his ambition and his ability to keep striving for greatness. Ferguson seeks to command every occasion, so that he views anything he encounters as a challenge, to his authority, to his intellect, to his stamina. This indefatigability was never more starklyexposed than during the week-long consternation over Wayne Rooney's future at Old Trafford.

"He might not have been able to influence the player to sign the contract, but he showed that he was in complete control," Smith says. "The story was leaked to the press and then was adjusted the next day by Sir Alex. He has shown himself to be far betterthan the rest of us in that respect. He's handled that situation within his club extremely well."

Rooney may feature at Ibrox, where Rangers are likely to rely on the 5-4-1 formation that has served them well in Europe this season and earned a0-0 draw at Old Trafford in September. The home side might look to stretch United on the counterattack a little more urgently, but then Smith is bedevilled by injuries to Madjid Bougherra, Sasa Papac and Maurice Edu. "We suffered in Valencia and we want to do as well as we can," Smith says. "But there's no doubt we'll need to be at the very top of our game."

The two managers will compete at Ibrox, too, but the friendship, the shared heritage of two west of Scotland managerial greats, will survive the conflict.

This week's Champions' League games


Group F Chelsea v MSK Zilina (7.45, Sky Sports 4)

Even more than their three previous defeats, a 7-0 home drubbing by Marseille (6 points) emphasised how far the Slovakians (0) are out of their depth. Chelsea (12) can rest players in order to avoid further injuries andstill win the group.

Group H SC Braga v Arsenal (7.45, Sky Sports 2)

Arsène Wenger's side (9) had been progressing as serenely as Chelsea until a slip away to Shakhtar Donetsk (9), and they cannot afford another one against the Portuguese side (6), who are a better team than their 6-0 defeat in London suggested.


Group C Rangers v Manchester United (7.45, ITV1)

Early draws with United (10) and Valencia (7) have enabled Rangers (5) to stay in contention for the knockout stages, but on the reasonable assumption that the Spaniards beat Bursaspor (0), the Scottish side will need a win here on a big Ibrox night.

Group A Tottenham Hotspur v Werder Bremen (7.45, Sky Sports 2)

This first European Cup adventure for half a century has been a thrilling one for Spurs (7), who top their section ahead of Internazionale (7). They would like the Italians to beat Twente (5) but victory over the Germans (2) putsthem through in any case.

Steve Tongue