Ferguson takes first step on road to revenge

 

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The Independent Football

He climbed to the press conference table and dealt out the diplomacies, just as he has in his 17 previous Champions League campaigns. A nod to the threat of Benfica's Pablo Aimar and the club's European pedigree. A smile and a handshake for the translator.

But the elephant in the room was another football club beginning and ending with the letters B and A. From now until the spring, Barcelona are the only genuine question where United are concerned, and whether the 69-year-old manager's re-engineered young side are somehow capable of bridging the gulf which was exposed last May at Wembley.

"It's the first game. Give me a break, will you. Give me a break," Ferguson replied when the Barcelona question was put to him. Ryan Giggs was more forthcoming and more blunt about the challenge which might lie ahead.

Lionel Messi is "probably the best player over the last 20 years," said Giggs, one of five of the older United players who may finally get a chance to muscle out the youngsters in the opening Group C match tonight. Pep Guardiola's side will also carry more confidence into the tournament, by dint of their two final triumphs over United, he added. "What they've got now is more experience and confidence from winning things that they didn't have back [when we beat them in 2008] but we've got to overcome that if we come up against them again."

Ferguson mellowed and finally discussed the issue, though his old theme about the need for United to become one of the five-time winners who make an indelible mark on the tournament was less forceful than usual. "It's different winning the Champions League today than it was 30 years ago because all the best teams are in it now," he said, reeling off the list of sides who stand in his way between now and a 12 May date in Munich.

For now Ferguson, whose side are unbeaten away from home in Europe for 18 months and did not concede a goal in 540 minutes on the road before the final in the last campaign, can at least witness the fear his young side carry on to the continent. The Estadio da Luz carries bad memories for Wayne Rooney, whose 2004 European Championship ended with a broken metatarsal in the first half of England's quarter-final with Portugal, but Rooney, with his 10 goals in six competitive games, carries a far bigger threat in the stadium.

Benfica manager Jorge Jesus had no hesitation last night in declaring Rooney to be the prime Premier League threat, in an assessment of the striker's skills which concluded with Ferguson suggesting that the main reason he could not be compared to Pele was skin colour. "He's white, completely white," Ferguson grinned.

Jesus declared that Rooney "looks like he is the best British player so far. He doesn't look like a British player but an Argentinian or Brazilian. He can decide a match in the last third of the field."

For once, Ferguson – who suggested Rooney was aiming to beat his previous best seasonal tally of 34 goals from the 2009-10 campaign – departed from local consensus. "I disagree with him," he replied. "I think he's a typical British player, but there have been British players over the last few years, maybe for the last decades, who have similar great qualities that make them great players.

"Whether it's a Gascoigne, George Best, Bobby Charlton, Denis Law, the similarities are that the boy has great courage, he wants to play all the time, he has incredible stamina. Brazilian? If you look at Pele, for instance, he was a very aggressive attacker also who could look after himself – so can Rooney. They have similarities that way: strength, speed, determination."

The manager, who left Rio Ferdinand at home with a hamstring injury, knows that one man cannot beat Barcelona alone. Rooney was his best player last May at Wembley, scoring the goal which give his side brief, unrealistic hope. "If that's the target this season and he gets to that, then I'll be absolutely delighted," Ferguson concluded of Rooney's 34-goal record. But it is the bigger, more unattainable goal which will be tearing at him.

Three key confrontations

Luisao v Wayne Rooney

Thirty-year-old Benfica captain Luisao helped to keep out Rooney, as well as the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Ruud van Nistelrooy, in 2005-06 as the Lisbon side won and consigned United to bottom place in the group stage. The experienced Brazilian international will face a more mature Rooney this time out, as the England man arrives off the back of successive club hat-tricks. He will seek to get in behind the 6ft 4in Brazilian, who has scored against both Everton and Liverpool in Europe.

Pablo Aimar v Michael Carrick

If Sir Alex Ferguson does put his faith in Michael Carrick at the heart of United's midfield, one of his tasks will be to limit the effectiveness of the diminutive Argentine Pablo Aimar. The Benfica midfielder, 31, was instrumental in his side's push to the semi-finals of the Europa League last season, and he has represented his country on over 50 occasions.

Nicolas Gaitan v Chris Smalling

Not selected for the business end of the competition last season, Chris Smalling will operate at right-back tonight, where he represented England twice earlier this month. Argentina international Gaitan, a tidy two-footed midfielder, will be charged with bettering the youngster, as well as be expected to track-back to deal with Smalling's marauding surges.

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