The cherry blossom is in bloom and the orange groves abundant but the gifts on offer in the Eternal City will not, it seems, be stretching to the chianti which Sir Alex Ferguson had been anticipating.
The Manchester United manager was careful to deflect any talk yesterday that he would like to acquire Daniele De Rossi, the right-sided Roma defensive midfielder he so admires, not least for fear of offending the player's manager, Luciano Spalletti. "I don't fancy making enemies with Luciano. He presents very good wine after the game you know," said Ferguson, holding court in the Hilton at the summit of one of the seven hills of Rome which, for the manager of a team at the height of its powers, seemed an appropriate place to be.
Ferguson could have spared the diplomacy because "Luciano" is not in the mood for it and will not, he had already let it be known, be reaching into the drinks cabinet tonight. "This time there will be no gifts from me because we gave them seven last time," he said. "No wine and fewer goals."
Roma are, or course, still haunted by the 7-1 demolition at United's hands in the Champions League quarter-final second leg at Old Trafford last Spring, a humiliation made no less acute by Cristiano Ronaldo's claims, in a recent biography, that some of Spalletti's players asked him to stop trying, to spare their embarrassment. ("I don't want to have an argument but if he really wrote that he did not remain true [to events]," De Rossi insisted yesterday.)
Spalletti is considerably more deferential about United than his opposite number feels he can afford to be. While the United manager evaded suggestions that he has never been more likely to take another Champions League – "we have only won [it] once in my time so that tells you how difficult it is... but we have the players who can make us successful," was as far as he would take things – Spalletti declared United to be "the best team in the world". And yet the Italian does see, in United's less-than-formidable away record in Europe, a way to avenge the wrongs of last Spring. "It's a long time since Manchester United got a very good win abroad," he said. "They are fantastic at Old Trafford but they have not been so good away."
Spalletti certainly has a point. United's Old Trafford record in Europe may have reached record proportions – 10 successive wins recently equalled Juventus' 11-year record – but there have been just four wins in the last 18 of these European travels which Ferguson so relishes. Granted, two were in this year's group stage – in Lisbon and Kiev – but five years have passed since the last big one; the Ryan Giggs-inspired 3-0 win against Juventus which secured United another quarter-final place.
Spalletti has a vastly different squad this time around. While Roma entered last year's quarter-final with minimal resources, the substitutes' bench available for the 2-1 win in Madrid which got them here (Christian Panucci, David Pizarro, Mirko Vucinic) says everything about their youth-inspired restructuring.
Their season's priorities were made clear when Spalletti rested several players at Cagliari on Saturday, ahead of this game, despite his side's relentless attempts to overhaul Internazionale's lead at the summit of Serie A. But whether his side can prevail without Francesco Totti – their captain and prime inspiration who has not recovered from a thigh train sustained at Cagliari – remains to be seen.
Vucinic, tonight's sole striker, may struggle to prevail against a defence which, with 20 clean sheets this season, is greater than any Ferguson has had at his disposal down the years. United's arrival here coincided with that of delegates to the European Hedge Funds Symposium and, all told, hedging their bets for Old Trafford with a robust defensive perfomance may well be what they are about tonight.
Ferguson dwelt yesterday on a player who, where Europe is concerned, remains his own work-in- progress and did not bat away criticisms of Ronaldo's contribution on nights like this. "He's not had as much European football as the top players on the European scene," he said. "But his maturity in two or three years time will not be questioned. He will eventually show these attributes the more he plays in European football."
Ferguson was also at pains to suggest that the tackle by Birmingham City's Martin Taylor on Arsenal's Eduardo da Silva will presage a change in refereeing standards, to protect players such as Ronaldo. It was a curious point, since Ferguson has been at pains to insist Taylor's tackle was not malicious.
Though Ronaldo may have a distance to travel, United's progress certainly makes them, like Roma, a different proposition 12 months on. "Last season, when we went to play AC Milan in the semi-final, we were not in the best position or shape," Ferguson said. "Now we are and you always hope that you go into the big games in good form and the form is there."
United on the road in Europe
Manchester United have won only four of their last 18 Champions League away matches
2007-08: Lyon 1-1; Roma 1-1; bt Dynamo Kiev 4-2; bt Sporting Lisbon 1-0
2006-07: Lost to Milan 3-0; lost to Roma 2-1; bt Lille 1-0; lost to Celtic 1-0; lost to Copenhagen 1-0; bt Benfica 1-0
2005-06: Lost to Benfica 2-1; lost to Lille 1-0; Villarreal 0-0
2004-05: Lost to Milan 1-0; lost to Fenerbahce 3-0; Sparta Prague 0-0; Lyon 2-2.
2003-2004: Lost to Porto 2-1Reuse content