On the eve of a major test of his club's credentials, Sir Alex Ferguson suggested that his patience with Nemanja Vidic's injury has its limits after the defender declared himself unfit to travel to face Milan.
Ferguson, who also bristled in response to David Beckham's praise for his former manager as the two prepare to compete for the first time since the winger left Old Trafford in July 2003, appears unconvinced by Vidic's explanation of a calf injury which has left the Serb unwilling to risk competitive action. "It's a difficult one. He thinks he feels he needs a lot of training," Ferguson said. "He has been training the last few days but doesn't feel he is ready to take part in games. That's something we just feel we have to be patient with, which we are at the moment."
Real Madrid are confident that they can make the 28-year-old Serb the latest United player to move to the Bernabeu this summer and while Ferguson (right) reaffirmed that he did not want him to leave – "of course we want him to stay, he is a great player. He is one of the best players in the world" – his demeanour displayed obvious doubts about a player badly needed in tonight's last-16 first leg match, with Rio Ferdinand also representing a gamble having played just twice in two months.
Ferguson's discontent with Vidic's reluctance to play last surfaced after he had pulled out of the FA Cup third-round tie against Leeds United last month during the warm-up. Asked after the 1-0 defeat why Vidic had not played, he snapped: "I couldn't tell you. I couldn't tell you at all." Though five days later he had mellowed. Vidic last played in the 5-0 win over Wigan Athletic on 30 December.
When Ferguson is usually asked about Real Madrid approaches to his players his response is volcanic, though his response on the issue of whether Vidic would be leaving this summer – the player's wife, Ana, is understood to remain unsettled in the UK – was unconvincing.
"I can't answer that question simply because it's pure speculation," he said. "We get that from time to time and we have to deal with I suppose. A lot of clubs want to buy our players and we have to deal with that situation."
With Vidic missing, the new England captain Rio Ferdinand has become an even more crucial player, Ferguson acknowledged. Ferdinand has played just twice since the end of October – more recently because of his four-game ban for elbowing Hull's Craig Fagan – and featured in just two of United's six Champions League group stage games.
Ferguson said that Ferdinand, who has not played since the Carling Cup semi-final against Manchester City last month, was over his worst injury problems. "I certainly hope he [Ferdinand] is all right to the end of the season," Ferguson said. "We've put a lot of work into him. He has worked very well and not missed a session now for six or seven weeks. Unfortunately, he got the suspension after the Hull match or he would have been playing regularly. He is here and he is under consideration and he probably will start. We have to make a decision about whether he is able to play [against Milan]. There's nothing wrong with him mentally but he has had his injury."
Beckham offered a sincere tribute to Ferguson ahead of his first match with him. "Sir Alex will always be a father figure to me," he said. "He always has been and he always will be. No matter what has been said in the past, whether good or bad, I only remember the good times. He was the man who gave me my chance to play for the club I had always dreamt of playing for."
But Ferguson, who suggested he would play Ferdinand, was not enthusiastic about discussing Beckham. When Beckham's tribute, quoted at him, was the first subject to crop up during his pre-match interview, he retorted: "That was three seconds, bloody hell. That's not a question that I need to answer. David left some years ago and we move on in life. It's a different team, different players. That's what happens."Reuse content