Even when he is in a relatively supine mood, Sir Alex Ferguson has a talent for finding the weak spot of an opponent and when it comes to Chelsea, his foremost domestic rival of the last eight years, it is not difficult to press the right buttons.
For Chelsea, and their owner Roman Abramovich in particular, winning the Champions League has, in Ferguson's words, become an "obsession" and it is difficult to argue with him. It is an obsession that Ferguson freely admits he shared himself before he cleared the hurdle of the first triumph in 1999 – "a monkey off my back" – so he knows better than anyone else how much it must gnaw away at Chelsea.
It was there in the first leg at Stamford Bridge when the United fans periodically unfurled a banner proclaiming "Viva John Terry", their reference to his missed penalty at the Luzhniki Stadium in the Champions League final in Moscow three years ago. And carefully though he broached the topic yesterday, there was no doubting that this was Ferguson's gentle reminder to Chelsea that another year without winning the Champions League is another year spent outside the elite of European football. "I can agree that it seems it has become an obsession with them to win the European Cup," Ferguson said. "That is certainly why they signed Fernando Torres in January. There is no question of that in my mind. That is an obvious reason for signing the lad.
"Abramovich, the owner, has very much nailed his colours to the mast in that respect – I've felt that for quite a while with him. But at the end of the day it is a very difficult competition to win. All the best teams are there. You see the form of Barcelona at the moment? It's fantastic. It looks like it is going to be Barcelona and Real Madrid in the semi-finals – can you imagine what that is going to be like?
"It is a fantastic competition. But to have an obsession on winning the European Cup, that is stretching yourself a wee bit."
When Abramovich came to the Premier League in 2003 and bought a club outside the usual dominant group, he made a clear statement that he intended to take on the elite of English football. And the key figure in that elite is Ferguson who, at times, especially in 2005, looked as vulnerable as he had for 15 years. Yet, almost eight years on and the old boy stands between the Russian billionaire and his dream once again.
Over the past eight years, Abramovich has signed players that Ferguson had hoped to sign; poached Manchester United's chief executive (although it is debatable how much that affected Ferguson) and his club have won three Premier League titles. He has spent almost £1bn on trying to make Chelsea into a more successful club than United. And yet he comes to Old Trafford tonight as very much the underdog in what could be a familiar tale of woe for Chelsea.
It was that kind of talk that caused Ferguson to chide the room yesterday for what he perceived as a softening towards Chelsea as their season teeters on the brink. "It's all or nothing for us as well by the way," he said. "Make no mistake. You are all running away with sympathy for Chelsea at the moment. We need to win, believe me.
"I had that obsession with the Champions League myself for a long time. When we lost the semi-final against Borussia Dortmund [in 1997], I thought we were never going to do it. When we won in Barcelona in 1999 it was the greatest feeling of all time and it took the monkey off my back a bit. So you can understand it [Chelsea's obsession] but it doesn't make Chelsea any more desperate than Manchester United, believe me. We will be desperate to win that game."
There are comparisons being made to Ferguson's treble season 12 years ago because, like then, this is becoming an injury-free campaign. Apart from Rafael Da Silva, who trained alone yesterday and looks almost certain to miss tonight's game, none of his major players is missing. It is as much about who will not play tonight with Luis Nani and Dimitar Berbatov both likely to be on the bench again.
The return of Rio Ferdinand, Luis Anderson and Antonio Valencia at such a critical time of the campaign is one of those fortunate breaks that must convince a manager that this could be his season. "You could say it is like signing three new players but it isn't – it is bringing back three players who are fresh and know the club," Ferguson said. "When you bring new players in, not everyone settles in so quickly. We do not have that issue because these are established footballers here so it is a big issue having these players back."
He was probably talking about Torres there – and Abramovich's £50m January splurge to try to push his team on – but Ferguson is far too crafty to be that explicit. Ferdinand in particular has worked like a lucky charm for United. He has not been on the losing side for the club all season, in fact you have to go back to the defeat to Chelsea on 3 April last year for the last time Ferdinand lost a game as a United player.
Ferguson described yesterday how the England international had tracked him down to the other side of the training ground last week to tell him that he was fit to play in the first leg. "I saw him coming across on the buggy to a youth-team game I was watching and I said, 'This bugger wants to play, I can tell'."
While Chelsea and Ancelotti may feel that this is their time – and Chelsea have a good record at Old Trafford in recent years – there is no underestimating Ferguson's readiness to try to do it all over again. He was still complaining that last season's elimination from the competition on away goals by Bayern Munich should have been "an absolute slaughter job" until Ivica Olic's and then Arjen Robben's goals at Old Trafford.
Therein lies the problem with trying to knock Ferguson off his perch: he never forgets and he is never prepared to accept the fact that it might just be someone else's turn. Abramovich will surely be at Old Trafford tonight to see his team try to do it again but, eight years on, beating Ferguson and United is not getting any easier.
United's record under Ferguson in the Champions League
* Manchester United will be looking to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League for the seventh time tonight.
2006 Group stage
2005 Last 16
2004 Last 16
1996 did not qualify
1995 Group stage
1994 Second round
1993 did not qualify
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