"It's not for nothing that they say it's easier to get to the top than to stay at the top," says Frank Rijkaard, feet on the desk of his Barcelona office, contemplating tonight's duel with Sir Alex Ferguson. The Manchester United manager, of course, has stayed at the top longer than almost anyone and the Dutchman realises he can learn much from the man who will be in the opposing dugout at the Nou Camp tonight.
Rijkaard, like Sir Alex Ferguson, knows what the perfect season feels like. But whereas Sir Alex followed his 1999 treble with back-to-back Premier League titles, Barcelona won nothing last year in the wake of their 2006 double when they won La Liga and the European Cup.
Barça's failings last season and this – they are all but out of the running for La Liga – will be forgotten if a second European Cup in three years can be won, but Rijkaard knows the size of the task and the stature of the man whose side he faces. "He has achieved everything and he is still going strong. He is one of those people who represents football. He is football. He lives football. It is his life," Rijkaard says .
"Manchester United is a world-famous club and yet if you say Manchester United then immediately you think of Sir Alex Ferguson. To have achieved so much and have so much importance at such a big club is extremely rare."
Ferguson's ability to remain bigger than any of his players at Old Trafford, even if that means ditching them when they are at the height of their powers, is something not lost on Rijkaard, for whom Ronaldinho has become something of a deadweight this season.
In recent years Ferguson has overseen the departures of David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy (moves that have allowed Cristiano Ronaldo to blossom), and Rijkaard does not hide his admiration. "I think if you have that kind of vision then you really are a leader," he says. "It is hard because you have to convince everybody, especially the fans, that it will be the right thing to do and that is not easy because the fans are always picking out their favourites. But I think he proves himself to be right."
Rijkaard admits there was a fear that after doing the double two years ago complacency would creep in. "It's something we talked about a lot," he says. But there was no squad shake-up and Barcelona have paid the price since. There has been an unofficial workers/shirkers divide in the dressing room and in the run-up to last year's Champions League exit to Liverpool Samuel Eto'o exposed the disharmony with a thinly veiled attack on Ronaldinho. This season there has been another equally ill-timed outburst, with the Cameroon striker admitting: "If we have another season like this one next year, I'm leaving."
From Rijkaard there have been no flying boots, though. He prefers to believe the team are capable of sorting out such differences. "It's normal that if you are working with a lot of people then you have a lot of different mentalities and characters. You have the serious guy, and you have the one who is always complaining, and the one who is always talking. Everyone is different.
"But the main thing is that you create a collective where there is acceptance for the differences and that, above everything else, everybody has the same goal. I can work with a lot of different mentalities. If the group is willing to accept that, then you have a very strong team. If the group won't accept it then you have a problem."
Rijkaard's more phlegmatic approach is in marked contrast to Ferguson's combustible style, but he insists that he is just as driven. "Maybe I give the impression that I am not very ambitious," he says. "But I think I am very ambitious. Perhaps it is just that my focus is different. It is considered normal to crucify someone who does not perform well and there are so many ups and downs in football, but I don't want to be part of that.
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"Of course it is wonderful if you can achieve success and everybody at the club is proud and the fans are happy. But you have to create the circumstances for it to happen and that process can also give you a lot of fulfilment – working with people, showing who you are and having respect for each other. For me that is the main thing.
"Being able to still look each other in the eye after many years and give a warm embrace is important, but don't let that put you under the false impression that there is no ambition, because the goal behind it is to achieve something. And if you are willing to make sacrifices and to do everything that will make the collective perform better, and you have the talent, then you have even more possibilities of winning."
The presence of his former Ajax friend Frank Arnesen and his former Barcelona No 2 Henk ten Cate at Chelsea would certainly satisfy Rijkaard's need for a decent "boot room", but would the slowly-slowly approach wash at a place like Stamford Bridge?
"Not slowly," he interrupts. "The faster it is the better. My personal fulfilment comes from the way I work with people, but the goal is to win and to give the best that you have and to have a team that can perform and make the fans proud. That is the goal. And that is ambitious."
The fact that Rijkaard interrupted a question specifically about Chelsea might be seen by some as significant, but the Dutchman adds, when asked directly about Roman Abram-ovich's club: "I'm not someone who makes plans. If I work somewhere then I am not thinking about other things. First, I finish the job here."
The job in hand tonight will be stopping the best player in the world and his team-mates running riot at the Nou Camp. For Rijkaard though, United's strength is not Ronaldo but their unselfishness and unity.
"There are some players in the world who transmit something different and that gets the attention of the fans and that is beautiful. But, to have a good team and for star players to get that attention in the first place, you have to have the people who are willing to do the hard work and create the circumstances for players with more quality to show what they can do.
"Manchester United are a good collective. They all work really, really hard for each other and it is that team spirit and organisation that makes them something special, along with the extra qualities of some of their players."
There is a growing sense in Spain that English club football is now superior to theirs, and Rijkaard certainly admires the game as it is played in the Premier League. "I think that the physical strength is maybe more present than here in Spain. But you always have a difference between a match between two English teams and when they play in European competition against a foreign side. They are able to adapt. The games that they play in England are almost always exciting and with a lot of pace. It is very intense and it is wonderful to watch."
As for United, Rijkaard is well aware of their qualities. "They are very well organised from defence to midfield. When they get the ball they are very dangerous because they play with a lot of pace and strength and quality and they are able to create problems, so we have to consider that. We have to prepare ourselves for that."
On the basis of this season's performances Barcelona will struggle to match United for work rate. But they do have one or two superstars of their own. Lionel Messi and Eto'o are expected to start tonight, with Rijkaard then deciding which is the smaller risk – Thierry Henry, who trained for the first time in over a week yesterday, or Bojan Krkic, who is just 17 years old.
The teenager has eclipsed Henry this season and, to hear Rijkaard speak about the pair, it is the Frenchman who sounds like the prospect for the future and Bojan the player for the here and now. "Henry had a difficult start because people expected a lot and he was still recovering from injury. He had some very good results with us, making assists and scoring goals but I could see that he was not really happy about his performance.
"We decided to give him an extra programme apart from the group and he recovered completely and that is when we saw in some games Thierry Henry feeling good on the pitch and making the difference. So he has great possibilities, but he had some bad luck recovering from his injury, getting another injury, and now he is working really hard to get back and be a very important player for the team."
Bojan in contrast is still enjoying the freedom of anonymity, although Rijkaard warns him it will not last long. "If you have someone who is a real talent, it does not matter if he is only 17. If he gets to play with even better players then, especially in the beginning, his level will increase hugely. Everything looks like it is coming out of nothing. It doesn't take any force and there is no problem in reaching a very high level. But after a few months the really important moment is beginning because people become aware of the fact that you are good and they expect something from you."
Whether Rijkaard is able to stick around to see Bojan develop will depend largely on out-thinking Ferguson and then beating Liverpool or Chelsea in the final. This season it has not just been results that have deserted Barcelona but the sparkling football, too, and only the European Cup will make up for that.
They are a hard crowd at the Nou Camp. But Rijkaard does not want it any other way. "Every country, every club has its own traditions. Everybody knows that the crowd at Barcelona only want one thing and that is to see a winning team playing good football. That is the way it is here. It is what the people demand."
A goalless draw might not be a bad result tonight. No away goals and the prospect of Eto'o, Henry and Messi hitting United on the break at Old Trafford. But the Nou Camp might not accept it. Would Rijkaard be happy? "I don't think that I will be happy after one game whatever the score is. I will only be happy if we get through."
Six-goal thrillers and silverware: Past meetings between United and Barça
United's record against Barcelona: Played 7 Won 2 Drawn 3 Lost 2 F13 A15
* 7 March 1984: Cup-Winners' Cup quarter-finals, first leg: Barcelona 2 (Hogg og, Rojo) Man United 0
* 21 March 1984: Second Leg: Man United 3 (Robson 2, Stapleton) Barcelona 0
A late Rojo goal gave the Spanish club a two-goal lead to take to Old Trafford and Barcelona, including a certain Diego Maradona, were fancied to progress. Two Robson goals brought the scores level before a Frank Stapleton goal sent United through.
* 15 May 1991: Cup-Winners' Cup final (Rotterdam); Man United 2 (Hughes 2) Barcelona 1 (Koeman)
Mark Hughes opened the scoring against his former side halfway through the second half before adding a second seven minutes later. A late Koeman free-kick proved mere consolation for the Spanish champions.
* 19 October 1994: Champions League group stages: Man United 2 (Hughes, Sharpe) Barcelona 2 (Romario, Bakero)
Hughes continued to torment his former employers, giving United the lead in this Old Trafford group match. Romario and Bakero goals either side of the interval gave the visitors the lead before Lee Sharpe converted a Roy Keane cross to gain a point.
* 2 November 1994: Champions League group stages: Barcelona 4 (Bruce og, Romario, Stoichkov, Ferrer) Man United 0
Hampered by the three-foreigner rule, Sir Alex Ferguson was forced to play Gary Walsh in goal and Barça romped to victory.
* 16 September 1998: Champions League group stages; Man United 3 (Giggs, Scholes, Beckham) Barcelona 3 (Anderson, Giovanni pen, Luis Enrique pen)
Goals in the first 25 minutes from Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes gave United the lead before Barça pulled it back to 2-2. David Beckham put United back in front but a second penalty gave the visitors a point.
* 25 November 1998; Champions League group stages; Barcelona 3 (Anderson, Rivaldo 2) Man United 3 (Yorke 2, Cole)
The sides served up another six-goal thriller in the return match. Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole replied to Anderson's first-minute goal before two from Rivaldo sandwiched a second from Yorke.
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