Far be it from Sir Alex Ferguson to interfere in the internal politics of Manchester United's Champions' League opponents, but just for good measure he decided he would like to add his contribution to the Avram Grant debate. "Second [in the Premier League], and to take them to the final of the Champions' League," he exclaimed. "Jesus Christ, people can get 10-year contracts for that!"
It could, of course, be viewed as a typical piece of Ferguson devilment, with the final only days away. Yet from the elder statesman of English football there is clearly respect and a certain affection – notwithstanding the words exchanged over Steve Bennett's refereeing of the title decider at the JJB stadium last Sunday – for his adversary, who has risen virtually without trace.
"It can't have been easy because he was unknown," the Scot reflected on Grant's accession to the post vacated by his one-time nemesis, Jose Mourinho. "He was an Israeli coach who came here quite a few times over the years, watched us train. But to get a position like that, after having been working at Portsmouth, was [he pauses, seeking the correct word] unusual."
He added: "I had a feeling when he went to Chelsea there was more to it than just joining them as an assistant. I thought at that time there must have been problems. But he's done well."
On Wednesday night, the odds will be on Manchester United providing Ferguson with a second and, he believes, overdue European trophy. His team should bounce into the ring with the swagger that a 10th Premier League title has instilled in them. Yet, though Ferguson exudes calmness and confidence as the pressure is cranked up and he feels the weight of expectation on his formidable shoulders, one senses that he would really prefer that his men did not face these particular rivals.
"They are a hard team to beat," he said. "They're big, strong and physical. They're experienced. They can eke out one-nil victories quite easily. That's the way they've been the last few years, I think. It's important we express ourselves and play our game the best we can."
He will be acutely aware of the menace of Didier Drogba, the striker whose goal won the FA Cup for Chelsea last season at the conclusion of a tedious afternoon at Wembley. "He scored the winner, but therewas nothing in it. It's not as though he was brilliant or anything. I thought we handled him quite well. But he is a big strong man who has got a good goalscoring record."
The collision between Drogba and Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic will be a compelling one. And Ferguson knows that it is crucial his men negate the power of the Ivorian as his men try to make up for the lost opportunities of other United teams. "I think it's a tournament that elevates your status as footballers, and as a team. I think we should have won it many more times," said the United manager.
"I look back at the disappointments, at the Borussia Dortmund game [1997 semi-final] and Bayer Leverkusen game [2002 semi-final] and think we should have won both of them. But this is an opportunity to add to the one [his one, in 1999, not forgetting the European Cup triumph of 1968], and this team could catch up on the others. Obviously, Real Madrid, with nine victories is amazing. It would be hard to catch up with that record. Not in my lifetime, anyway. But there's AC Milan [who have won seven]. And there's Liverpool [five], Bayern Munich [five] and Ajax [four].
The departure of Cristiano Ronaldo would be a considerable handicap to that ambition. And, yes, he was well aware of reports that Real Madrid were attempting to spirit his Portuguese midfielder away.
"It's nonsense. Believe me, it's nonsense," Ferguson insisted. "But I don't expect it to go away. They [Real Madrid] have always done these things, ever since I can remember." Victory would surely encourage Ronaldo to remain faithful to a club who secure honours now rather than joining one who revel in past glories. But, as Ferguson knows, that triumph is far from assured.Reuse content