They have shown one another the utmost politeness in the run-up to tonight’s Champions League encounter but last night Jose Mourinho finally went on the attack against Sir Alex Ferguson. Mourinho claimed that Manchester United would not be brave enough to play their usual game against Internazionale and even named seven of his starting XI as he famously once did as manager of Chelsea against Barcelona.
In response to a classic Mourinho wind-up tactic, Ferguson said that he believed his team could win the tie at San Siro tonight and denied that United would play the role of spoilers by trying to shut Internazionale down. He said that he was not fazed by his poor head-to-head record against Mourinho as a manager, in which he has won only two out of 12, and said that it would count for nothing when the two sides meet tonight.
Ferguson may be one of the few managers whom Mourinho weighs his words when he provokes but the United manager has his own problems ahead of the game. He suggested last night that he might have to play the unproven Brazilian 18-year-old Fabio Da Silva – twin of Rafael – at right-back if either or both of John O’Shea and Jonny Evans do not come through late fitness tests. The indication from training last night is that there is a good chance both will be fit to play.
It was Mourinho who made the running yesterday, predicting that United would not dare to play all four of their big attacking players as they do in the Premier League. He said: “Manchester United are a great attacking team but I have watched every one of their matches in the Champions League last season and they changed the way they play away. When they played Barça, they had a different approach.
“I am not saying they are afraid. I know United don’t like that word. I know Sir Alex doesn’t like that word. But they respect us and they know they can lose and because of that they won’t try the same approach in the Champions League. They will change more than us.”
Mourinho went on to name his midfield in detail as well as his striking partnership of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Adriano which has an echo of the occasion in March 2005 when, at the Nou Camp, he announced his starting XI and then accurately predicted that of Barcelona. On that occasion it was regarded as a major slight on Barça’s then-coach Frank Rijkaard. This time Mourinho was not so dismissive but his words were designed to demonstrate he knew how United would play and that he was in control.
“[Cristiano] Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney – all of them together? I have many doubts about that,” Mourinho said. “I think they will change. For sure [Michael] Carrick and Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs or Park [Ji-Sung] will play. I don’t think they will come to play eye-to-eye and win the tie. We will play 4-4-2.”
While Ferguson was never going to show his hand he did twice refer to one “moderation” that was evidently on his mind for tonight’s game. There is a strong possibility that he will leave out Berbatov, play Rooney as the lone striker and pick five in midfield including Darren Fletcher, Giggs and Park. He has moved to a 4-5-1/4-3-3 system before in the Champions League when under pressure. Mourinho’s theory may not be so far out.
Mourinho’s other prediction, that the tie would go right to the wire was given short shrift by Ferguson. “I think it will be decided here, if we score we will have a great chance,” he said. Nevertheless the United manager also delivered a rare eulogy to a fellow manager when he talked about Mourinho’s initial impact at Chelsea and gave a rare insight into just how the Portuguese coach had affected his and United’s standing in the English game.
“When Jose came to Chelsea there was a great upsurge in the club’s fortunes and position in the game. It happened suddenly. He came in and uttered those words ‘I am the special one’ and it galvanised the whole club. They won those titles and caught us on the hop. Their starts to the season were fantastic.
“That had an effect on Chelsea. It gave them an upper hand against everyone. They remained undefeated at home in the league for the two years he was there. It was a fantastic record [Mourinho losing just two in 12 to Ferguson]. But I don’t go around thinking about all the games I have played against other managers, I am not into that. It is not a stat I like to think about. But it is not like I lost the other 11. And it doesn’t matter now.”
Earlier, Mourinho reminded him that he had eliminated United from the Champions League five years earlier with a Porto team that “people would not have bet a euro on to win”. This time round the odds are shorter. However, having joked that his only option in defence was to “panic”, and that Berbatov might be used as an emergency sweeper, Ferguson looked calm enough to suggest that his defensive injuries are not as bad as thought.
Mourinho warned United that his Internazionale team was not “afraid”. “I told the players we should not be afraid of being out in 15 days’ time,” he said. “Probably we will be able to celebrate beating the European champions.”
Tonight’s referee: L M Cantalejo (Spain). TV: ITV1, 19.30.Reuse content