Federico Macheda scores his goals late, but he turns up early. The 17-year-old Italian, on whose form Manchester United have been so heavily dependent these past few weeks, arrived for the flight to Porto a good 10 minutes before any of his team-mates yesterday – the kind of youthful exuberance his manager badly needs, with the course of recent history hardly on his side tonight.
Not once in the past 10 years have the reigning European champions won a knockout tie when playing the second leg away from home, and you have to reach back to the legendary night against Juventus in Turin, during the club's victorious year of 1999 for the last time they did so, winning 3-2 after the 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.
After disappointments against Milan (twice), Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen, where United were eliminated after a 2-2 home draw seven years ago, Ferguson appreciates more than ever the 1999 spirit of Turin and it was that game and the contribution of his captain Roy Keane he called to mind last night, when asked what it will take to overcome the 2-2 draw at Old Trafford which leaves side side so up against things.
"There are plenty of performances we would like to replicate but probably Juventus," he said. "It was Roy's greatest ever moment. He was unbelievable for us but the team also played fantastically that night."
Ferguson, who said Rio Ferdinand will return tonight having missed three games with a groin injury, keeps using the same word to suggest his faltering side have turned a corner on a period of defensive frailty which has seen them concede 11 in five games. Last Friday, Mariano's 89th-minute equaliser for Porto was the "watershed." Last night, he said it had been Saturday's 2-1 win at Sunderland. But tonight is the opportunity to turn the tide for real. Ferguson's former assistant Carlos Queiroz has said that Porto are currently a superior side to United and Ferguson acknowledged that this is time for his players to step up their performance levels. "We all have to be up for it. There's no choosing one individual," he said.
Ferguson was responding to a question about Cristiano Ronaldo, top scorer in last season's tournament with eight goals but registering only one goal this time and an individual for whom questions seems most appropriate. The only Champions League chart he currently tops is that of most shots off target among those players still involved in this season's tournament. He has 16.
United's entire campaign has been insipid. With only three wins out of 10 in this year's tournament, their tally of 13 goals is the joint lowest in the tournament and last Tuesday's first leg was another illustration of their struggle to convert possession into goalscoring chances of any description. United's pass completion rate was 73 per cent, against Porto's 49 per cent and Ferguson's side covered considerably more distance, but Jesualdo Ferreira's pacy, attack-minded outfit still left the pitch with 17 shots on goal, to United's 13. Hence the value of Macheda's enthusiasm.
Ferguson appears ready for caution and to grind out a win rather than going all out for the two goals that could turn extra time into a possibility. "The mindset will be to make sure we are sound defensively," the manager said. "Get a feel of the game first. We will be much better prepared this time and much fresher." This may be frustrating. After their 2-2 draw at Atletico Madrid in the last round, Porto played a successful defensive game in Portugal, drawing 0-0. "That would be a mistake against us, but it's up to them now how they approach the tie," Ferguson said.
The United manager certainly has a spring in his step. His old mate Vince Miller, the stand-up comic, was waiting when he arrived at Porto's airport yesterday and lunged at him with a bear-hug. But Ferguson responded warmly and strode off through the airport to cheers.
Ferguson's opposite number Jesualdo Ferreira will serve a touchline ban tonight for his gesture at the referee at Old Trafford, which is one more reason why Ferguson isn't dwelling on the fact that not one of the 21 British clubs who have travelled to play Porto in the past 41 years has come away with the win which United will probably need.
"I trust these players because they deserve trust and the big performances over the past few years," he concluded. "It's not as if we are coming here without a big chance. We've got remember the places we've been and the performance levels there."
Enter the Dragon: United's tough task
Manchester United need to overcome history at the Estadio do Dragao tonight – the Portuguese champions are unbeaten in six games against English sides and have lost only twice in 22 Champions League matches.
Porto's CL record at Estadio do Dragao: P22 W10 D10 L2
Record against English sides:
25 Feb 04: L16, Man Utd; won 2-1
7 Dec 04: GS, Chelsea; won 2-1
6 Dec 06: GS, Arsenal; drew 0-0
21 Feb 07: L16, Chelsea; drew 1-1
18 Sep 07: GS, Liverpool; drew 1-1
10 Dec 08: GS, Arsenal; won 2-0Reuse content