Sir Alex Ferguson invoked forces beyond his control last night as Manchester United plotted to reverse a trend in the club's modern history by overcoming Bayern Munich in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final this evening.
Only once in the club's 17 consecutive years of Champions League football has a first-leg defeat proved surmountable for United – when Roma beat them 2-1 in Stadio Olimpico three years back. The second leg of that encounter brought the legendary 7-1 annihilation of Luciano Spalletti's side at Old Trafford and Ferguson drew on his stadium's powers of inspiration as he asserted that his players could win through again. "Old Trafford has that suction behind the goal," he said. "In the Stretford End in the second half, the ball gets sucked into the goal. It's amazing. It's not always in respect of the team. The fans sometimes make it happen."
This was not empty rhetoric. Old Trafford at times resembles the library which visiting supporters mock and it was a mausoleum on Saturday. But the 1-0 semi-final win over Barcelona two years ago lives in the memory among atmospheres and now United need it like never before, buffeted as they have been by the anaemic first-half display against Chelsea which had even left their manager a subdued soul yesterday. Ferguson did not disguise the fact that the manner of the 2-1 weekend defeat had affected him. "I feel stronger about the [Bayern] game than I did on Saturday," he admitted. And while it still seems far-fetched to suggest he can turn to Wayne Rooney, a player with an orthopaedic boot around his right leg as recently as Saturday, you feel that the kernel of possibility Ferguson kept alive actually stems from his reluctance to close that particular door until he really has to. There are certainly some strong portents weighing against United this evening, including Arjen Robben's declaration yesterday that he was not in Manchester to sit around watching a football match. Bayern won their own prospective weekend title decider 2-1, at Schalke, and it will not be lost on Ferguson that Louis van Gaal's side have scored in every Champions League away game they have played this season. That is hardly an enticing prospect for United – who, incidentally, have not lost three consecutive games since the last three fixtures of the 2000-01 campaign, when the title was already theirs. "We can't allow ourselves to be knocked out by away goals," Ferguson insisted. But his defence, which went 14 consecutive games without conceding a goal in the middle of last season, has failed to keep a single clean sheet this season against the current Premier League top seven.
"People score against us. It happens," Ferguson said, brushing away the thought. "We're not the only team to concede goals. Last season was different. It was an exceptional season." But the left flank provides grounds for concern. Gary Neville clearly lost the battle to Franck Ribéry there in Munich, though Ferguson was also indignant when it was put to him that the Frenchman has the beating of his own club captain for speed. "Are you sure of that?" he shot back. "I think Ribéry is a very talented player and a great dribbler of the ball but I don't think he is any quicker than Gary Neville."
While Ferguson deliberates on how to contend with Ribéry – selecting from Neville, who has played seven straight games for United, or Rafael da Silva, who was undone in the previous round by Ronaldinho, is difficult – he also needs goals without Rooney. Ferguson said United will not start with Federico Macheda alongside Dimitar Berbatov in a 4-4-2, the 18-year-old only having been back in training for a month after a long-term groin strain.
Berbatov was the elephant in the room but his name did crop up in Van Gaal's press conference, when Ferguson's Dutch opposite number revealed he once wanted to buy him from Bayer Leverkusen before Tottenham moved in. Berbatov's record against strong sides is as poor as the defence's, but the first-leg deficit demands someone step up. On that April night against Roma, Michael Carrick – who may be recalled here – scored after only 12 minutes and an early goal would certainly bolster a United side shell-shocked by the events of the last week. It is almost three years ago to the day since that Roma second-leg – a game which, like tonight's, United entered four days after a 2-1 League defeat (at Portsmouth.)
Ferguson had not thought of the connection between the two fixtures. "You don't have time to think that far back," he remarked. But once reminded, the memory grew on him. "It was one of these performances you don't see every week," he reflected. "Perhaps once in a lifetime. But I think the Roma team of that time were equal to Bayern, in terms of ability."