Ferdinand faces late test in bid to face Roma

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The Independent Online

Ji-Sung Park was a virtual bystander yesterday as his manager expounded on Manchester United's chances of European progression against Roma tonight but he provided, in the few sentences offered up at the end, the most astute assessment of what his side must feel they can finish the season with. "Yes, we can win the double: the European Cup and the league as well," said the South Korean, who set up United's second goal on his first Champions League start in Rome last week.

Park's observation hardly raised an eyebrow but it is the kind of self-confidence that Ferguson is guarding against when, with Barcelona – his side's likely semi-final opponents – misfiring so badly, United's prospects of reaching a third final are surely greater than ever.

It is one of the Champions League's statistical quirks that no side has lost in the knockout stage after a 2-0 first leg win but Ferguson happily leapt on the suggestion that his side's indifferent 2-2 draw at the Riverside might actually provide his opposite number, Luciano Spalletti, with hope.

"I'm the same when I see opponents playing," Ferguson said yesterday. "I hope for thunder and lightning across the pitch or they lose 25-0. I'm always looking for disasters to happen to my opponents. Always looking for grains of hope."

Spalletti has a few grains of his own, based around United's central defence. Nemanja Vidic's absence for the next fortnight has been compounded by Rio Ferdinand's injury at Middlesbrough, which leaves Ferguson waiting for the results of a fitness test this morning – though a scan has revealed that he did not break a foot before hobbling out of Sunday's match. "I'm hoping he's playing. He's obviously not done any [training]," Ferguson said.

But while Spalletti brings a far stronger side to Manchester than the one which suffered last April's humiliation, his chances of making anything from United's injuries are severely reduced by Francesco Totti's failure to recover from a thigh injury in time. Mirko Vucinic, who again replaces him, has had a good season but spurned several opportunities in the first leg and the chances of Roma scoring twice look remote.

One of the dilemmas Ferguson faces is how much exposure to give Cristiano Ronaldo against a side which was indignant about his trickery at Stadio Olimpico, although yesterday Spalletti sought to play that down.

"Some of the things said by our club after the game were perhaps said in the heat of the moment, because we had the bitter taste of defeat in our mouths," he said. "Sometimes we may say things that we normally would not. Cristiano Ronaldo is an excellent player."

The prospect of Ronaldo starting on the bench is not inconceivable and at the very least the Portuguese – who has scored 10 in his last 11 games in Europe – is likely to find himself withdrawn from the fray should United appear to be cruising to the semis.

"I've got to play a team tomorrow that can go through and win," said Ferguson, not exactly ruling out starting without Ronaldo. "That's always the intention. It's difficult to leave Ronaldo out of games the form he's in. He's been absolutely outstanding."

It might also be the night when Gary Neville, out since 17 March last year, and Mikaël Silvestre, missing since September, might finally make their mark again. Both will be involved and considering the struggle that John O'Shea had in central defence at Middlesbrough their return has come at the ideal time. It will also be a landmark night for Paul Scholes, making his 100th European appearance, though he will not mark the match by taking the captain's armband as Ryan Giggs did at Lyons in the last round. "No. Scholes would regard it as a punishment," Ferguson joked.

Despite Spalletti's comments Roma players, who go into the game buoyed by a 3-2 home win over Genoa which helps their pursuit of Internazionale at the top of Serie A, reiterated their views on Ronaldo as they arrived in Manchester. "We still believe [his tricks are] too much," said Vucinic. "We've told him what we think." The side's resentment for Ronaldo might help them, judging by Vucinic's view of how they will play the game. "We have to be angry after what happened last week," said Vucinic. "If we don't come here feeling angry it will be a waste of time."

Asked if this represented his best chance of reaching the final, Ferguson chose to answer a different question. "It's our best chance of reaching the semi-finals," he said. "You have to have that ambition."

But this reticence might not hold for too much longer. "The sensible approach is for us to wait until after the game against Roma," he concluded. "Then hopefully we can start to dream."

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