Sir Alex Ferguson served a reminder last night that five days last spring destroyed Manchester United's season and exhorted his players to guard against a complacency which could allow history to repeat itself.
Never in the course of Ferguson's seven European Cup semi-finals at United have the club entered a match like tonight's second leg against Schalke at Old Trafford with the focus so firmly fixed on the domestic game that follows it – Chelsea, on Sunday. But Ferguson recalled the fixtures against Chelsea and Bayern Munich that ended United's ambitions last May.
"It's what happened last year – exactly the same situation," said Ferguson, who will face no sanction from the Football Association for his comments in the wake of United's defeat to Arsenal at the weekend. "That's the optimism supporters have got, we don't share that. It's easy to get complacent in modern life – there are many examples of it. I hope Manchester United don't get complacent tomorrow night. Our work ethic will be very high in order for us to qualify [for the final]."
Ferguson's recollection of last April was slightly confused. He remembered how his side "lost the league after a Wednesday game against Bayern [Munich]". The critical 2-1 home defeat to Chelsea which lost them the title actually came before they exited Europe against the Germans at Old Trafford. But his point was still valid: the defeat to Bayern and the goalless draw at Blackburn Rovers four days later killed United's season.
Ferguson, who may rest Wayne Rooney after the striker's complaint of a tight hamstring saw him miss training yesterday, did look ahead to Sunday, with a bullish declaration about his side's prospects of seeing off Chelsea's late Premier League title challenge.
In tonight's programme notes, he says United are "still confident on the league front, with a three-point lead and three games to play. Two of those games are at home and... I am sure we will hit our target."
He said yesterday: "We must be favourites [for the title] – only because we are three points ahead. But that can evaporate very quickly. The drama isn't finished." A strike partnership of Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen – who has started only four games all season – is under consideration tonight and Rio Ferdinand may also be rested ahead of Chelsea's visit.
Schalke's preparations began badly when their flights out of Germany were delayed by two hours because they did not have the right visas, and history is certainly on United's side after the 2-0 first-leg win in Gelsenkirchen last week. No side has won a first leg away by two or more goals and failed to progress in the Champions League, and all 17 sides who have won a first leg 2-0 – either home or away – have gone through. Only two sides have progressed having lost a first leg by two goals or more.
Ferguson's side have certainly exuded a greater confidence in Europe than in domestic competition as they have eased towards a probable final with Barcelona at Wembley on 28 May, and the United manager admitted they have a better capacity to focus in continental competition. "We seem to have better concentration in European games because it's not regular football," Ferguson said.
"The mundane football of the Premier League is incessant tribalism, almost. You are playing London teams, Yorkshire teams or Liverpool teams and it creates an amazing competitive edge. In Europe you are playing different teams, it's different tactically so it helps concentration. It's the only answer I can think of."
Darren Fletcher is likely to be back, probably on the bench, after 12 games out with a virus and though Ferguson was as calm as he always tends to be when his side have just been afflicted by a bad defeat like Sunday's at Arsenal, he is aware that the Schalke coach Ralf Rangnick – who has 10 European games behind him to Ferguson's 175 – can urge his players to operate with freedom now, with their fate seemingly sealed.
The United manager also appeared to draw a line under any suggestion of Edwin van der Sar delaying his retirement by suggesting the goalkeeper should call it a day after the Champions League final, if United reach Wembley.
"He hasn't hinted to me that [he's changed his mind]," Ferguson said. "I think if I was giving advice to [him] right now I would say 'retire' because he is at the absolute pinnacle of his career. Sometimes when a player gets to that age in certain positions – and goalkeeper is one of them – it's easier for him. But all of a sudden, age comes on you very, very suddenly and I wouldn't want to see [him] in that situation. My advice to him is: 'this is the time' – because he has had an outstanding career. There is no reason he should risk another year and drop below his standard."
Michael Carrick, whose starting place could be threatened by Fletcher's imminent return, conceded United could not afford to get sucked into believing their job is done, especially given Schalke's performance at San Siro against Internazionale in the previous round, where they scored five times.
"It does come into your mind the fact you are two goals up," the 29-year-old said. "But it is dangerous to go into a game relying on those two goals to get you through. The focus is to approach the game as normal and to try and win the game. Clearly, Schalke scoring five goals at Inter stands out and is something you have to take into account.
"We were well aware of it last week and knew all about their strengths and weaknesses. But we have been playing some good stuff at home and we will have to be at the top of our game again to get the right result."
Carrick was outstanding in the first leg, adding to his portfolio of excellent United performances in Europe. But he does not buy into the argument that his measured style is more suited to the Champions League than the frenzy on offer in the Premier League.
"I don't really think that," he said. "You just adjust your game. It is slightly different but as a squad, we show good variety in our play and adapt pretty well."
* The 2010 World Cup final referee Howard Webb has been confirmed as the match official in charge of the crucial title showdown between United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday.