Rio Ferdinand has declared his fight to be fit for Wednesday's European Cup final the hardest of its kind in his 14-year top-flight career but he believes he will be ready for Rome, despite the doubts expressed yesterday by his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.
Ferdinand's availability is critical to United's hopes of stemming the interchangeable forces of Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto'o and, possibly, Thierry Henry against Barcelona, though Ferguson declared yesterday that if the 30-year-old is not fit for Sunday's league match at Hull City, then he will not start the final.
But three hours after the Scot offered this rather gloomy prognosis, Ferdinand emerged from his first training session with a ball since he sustained a calf injury after the semi-final second leg against Arsenal at the Emirates and declared he felt "fine".
"I've not thought about not playing in the final. It's as simple as that – no chance," said Ferdinand, who trained apart from the rest of the United squad in a workout which included light running. "This has been perhaps the hardest and most important injury battle of my career. There is so much at stake. I have been so engrossed in my injury that I haven't thought about much else – and I haven't even thought much about the final. I will start thinking about the actual match when I am sitting on the plane to Rome."
Though Ferguson suggested Ferdinand needs a match to be prepared for Rome, there is nothing to stop United organising one for him at Carrington on Monday and, in any case, Ferdinand has proved in United's run-in that he is capable of returning for big games. His quarter-final performance against Porto in Estadio do Dragao last month, after he had missed three games, was critical to the 1-0 win.
Ferguson, like most managers, is not averse to laying false trails for the opposition where his players' availability is concerned, and said of his stand-in captain: "I think he needs a game because to go into a Champions League final without a game for three weeks is too much. So, hopefully, he will be fit for Sunday. If not, then he is doubtful for the final, that's for sure."
The United manager's delight in a purist's final includes a belief he said that this would not be as disappointing as some in recent years. "There have been very few big-scoring finals," he said, conveniently forgetting Liverpool, and their 2005 triumph. But it is the Catalans' offensive play which he fears the most, with Ferdinand a key to United's attempt to counter it.
Ryan Giggs underlined the importance of dealing with that offensive threat. "We have to look after their danger men," he said. "I hope it is a free-flowing game but sometimes two teams cancel each other out. I hope that's not the case. We hope we keep them quiet and our match-winners perform."
Ferguson was in good cheer as the build-up began, even batting away the obligatory Ronaldo question with jocularity: "Do you know how old I am? First of all I am not going. Second I am trying to make sure Ronaldo doesn't go either!" he said. But his response to questions about his side for Hull City showed that he clearly sees a storm brewing, with Alan Shearer unlikely to appreciate his readiness to field a young side.