Ahead of the game which perhaps has most potential to unhinge his side's clean sweep of trophies, a concession from Sir Alex Ferguson that one particular statistic and one particular Portuguese do demonstrate his own vulnerabilities.
The solitary win in open play which the Manchester United manager has accomplished in 13 games against Jose Mourinho is a sobering and astonishing one, with United's inability to score against his Internazionale side two weeks ago creating the kind of knife-edge second leg dynamic at Old Trafford tomorrow night which Ferguson always hates.
"It proves I'm not infallible," he reflected. "I'm vulnerable to everyone who gets involved in football. You can lose football matches." Yet Ferguson's modesty had its limits. He reminded those listening that Mourinho's fateful first night at Old Trafford, when Costinho's 90th minute close range shot saw his Porto side put United out of the Champions League at the first knockout stage, five years ago on Monday, was contentious. "On the night we were the better team and beaten by a poor decision," he said, reflecting for the umpteenth time on the marginal decision to disallow Paul Scholes' goal that evening.
Yes, Ferguson's respect for Mourinho is tangible but he was clearly indifferent to that bottle of wine Mourinho left him after the 0-0 draw at San Siro last month when he left through the back of the dug-out without so much as a hand-shake. "I can't remember if I've used that wine yet? No, it's still in my house." Ferguson's most famous pronouncement about Italians was the one about checking under sauce to make sure "when they tell you it's pasta on the plate." And if a Portguese served that plate, the response would be...? "Probably very much the same," he said, laughing.
More significantly, United's own record over the years, Ferguson argued, transcended any individual chink in the armour which the Portuguese might have managed. "You look at the football club and I think we've a right to be proud of it and what we've achieved over the time I've been here," he said. "That's more important to me. It doesn't bother me one bit about Mourinho's record against me. It can happen." The story Ferguson told about how he couldn't lose if he tried, whenever he took his Aberdeen side to Celtic - "I went there with nine reserves but still won 5-0, so what can you say about football? It's a strange game" - suggested that some statistics defy much rational explanation.
The figure which makes more sense is United's 20-match unbeaten run in Europe since the 3-0 semi final defeat to AC Milan in May 2007 and their 18 matches undefeated at Old Trafford in the competition, which reaches back four years. Mourinho, in combat on British soil for the first time since he parted company with Chelsea two years ago, does not need to win to progress, of course, though United's first half performance at San Siro last month demonstrated the size of the task in hand. Ferguson's current squad are certainly light years ahead of the group - including Nicky Butt, Eric Djemba Djemba and Tim Howard - which Porto put to the sword.
Ferguson was effusive about Italian football yesterday, despite the disparity which clearly exists between Serie A and the Premier League. AC Milan have been the most successful European side of all time, he said, which was a good excuse to take another dig at Real Madrid. "They won the trophies in the modern day whereas Real Madrid won their first five when European football was just beginning," Ferguson said. "I think Milan have to be regarded as the best European team of all time so you have to be at your best when you're playing Italians."
Ferguson will find plenty of relaxation tomorrow - his horse 'What a Friend' runs in the 2.40 at Cheltenham and though he will have to forego a visit to the festival, his pulse may be racing come the final straight. "When he's coming over that last fence, with three around him, I won't be relaxed," he grinned. But he would forego that kind of success for the chance to put a particular part of his own track record a little straighter. Ferguson, who has both Rio Ferdinand and John O'Shea fit for tomorrow, won't be dancing down the touchline like Mourinho did on that night in March 2004. "Look at the ages, there's a difference," he grinned. But the prospect of this particular 67-year-old putting the 46-year-old pretender in his place will be as satisfying as most experiences this season.Reuse content