Sir Alex Ferguson has declared that his players are being judged against "foggy memories" of how strong his previous Manchester United teams actually were and that they have a better chance of brushing Real Madrid aside in the Champions League last-16 round than people think.
Ferguson made it clear that there are no certainties and that the Bernabeu will be "the acid test" of the squad he has been assembling since Barcelona tore his aside apart in their last major European challenge nearly two years ago. His look of hungry anticipation – which contrasted with the gloom of a Jose Mourinho, who declared his next job would be in England – was evident when asked if United could win this competition: "Our team?" he laughed. "I think so, yeah. There's a great spirit about them."
The United manager, who has everyone but Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes fit, insisted that his tactics would be ambitious and warned there could be "chaos" on the Bernabeu pitch. "There won't be a 0-0 tomorrow," he said. "There will be goals. Of course it can live up to expectations. History always plays a part in these matches. We have to play our own game. Our intention is to win and score and that can cause chaos in games we play. There can be late drama but we have to balance that with responsibility not to leave the door open."
Madrid's attempts to shake United out of their focus came on the front page of Tuesday morning's Marca, dominated by the image of a screaming Wayne Rooney and labelling him a "freckled demon" and a "football player and a hooligan all rolled into one." Mourinho did not attempt to take the sting out of the paper. "I don't think it was written in that context of calling him a hooligan but, anyway, if I can support Rooney it is just that I was called week after week worse than that," he said. Ferguson deftly brushed the insult away. "I'm not interest in what a Madrid paper says. Rooney can't speak Spanish can he? So he's alright."
The United manager did not flinch when the press conference's second question concerned a Patrice Evra sex scandal – "Was that a grenade that was thrown in there?" he asked – and declared that this was a "fantastic" moment to play Mourinho's side with United 12 points clear in the Premier League and no injuries.
With the prime tactical question being about how to blunt Cristiano Ronaldo – a player who Mourinho passed up the chance to describe as the greatest ever – Ferguson predicted that his old Portuguese managerial adversary would overtake his own haul of trophies.
"He is 50 years of age. He has 20 years to catch up on me and it is quite possible he could," the United manager said. "I'm trying to guess what surprise they could do to blunt us and what I could to annoy them."
The United manager also launched his most emotive defence yet of his goalkeeper David de Gea, back on home turf. "The boy has shown character because he has taken a lot of criticism, sometimes unfair. What we are good at is developing people and their characters. He is a young kid still to mature in the game but it's like a kid making his first steps forwards. He wobbles, gets up, wobbles, gets up and he is walking now."
Mourinho's virtual state of war with Madrid was evident when he addressed the question of the perceived problems at Real. "Are you worried about a crisis?" he replied. "I don't think you are. I'm not. I think it easier for you to let the press conference end and at the end speak with the guys who write all the stories."
Mourinho claimed he could not replace Ferguson because the United manager would work until he was 90. Ferguson replied: "It's against the law to force retirement so I've no worries. I won't be working until 90 – believe me. He can work until 70. I enjoy my work, and while my health is good I will carry on."
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