For once the football auguries worked out as promised. Outside Old Trafford on Wednesday night, one of the few non-Glazer banners read: "United. Not arrogant. Just better." Inside, the Tannoy was playing the Black Eyed Peas: "I gotta feeling that tonight's gonna be a good night."
So it proved, on both counts. Manchester United were better than Milan from the first kick of their Champions' League tie and as they ensured their progress to the quarter-final, it became a very good night indeed; climaxed not so much by David Beckham donning a green and gold scarf as by the news that Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid had been ejected from the competition at the usual knockout stage in the year they hoped to play in the final on their own turf. If Fabio Capello was absolutely honest, he would surely prefer the English contenders not to be involved in that 22 May date at the Bernabeu, while the rest of his World Cup squad are adapting to altitude in the Austrian mountains. It would be undiplomatic to say so, however, so for now he must take consolation from the fact that on the evidence of the past week, his new captain and his one world-class striker are fit and raring to go.
Raring, not roaring. Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney have been schooled for long enough in the Old Trafford ways not to be shouting the odds, sharply decreasing as they are on United, if not England. As ever in a frantic English season, there is little time to bask in the glory, glory. This lunchtime Fulham turn up fresh – or not – from their own adventure against one of Italy's big three. Next weekend it is Liverpool, with much to prove, since Europe offers them rather less glamour. Both teams have given United some embarrassing moments over the past couple of years, notably the defeats at Craven Cottage by 2-0 with nine men last season and by 3-0 in December with most of the regular defence missing.
Ferdinand was among them, suffering the longest absence of his career apart from the suspension for a famously missed drugs test he seems to have erased from memory. "I'm feeling very good," he said. "It's just nice to be playing again. Two games in a week and in the last couple of months I've not been able to imagine playing once, so it's good to be in this position. I've never had to sit and watch my team play. Since I've been a professional I've never been injured, never had suspensions. It's been frustrating but as you get older you move on."
Capello and the England medical team will be relieved to hear that, as well as confirmation that Ferdinand – who missed the Egypt game after being named as John Terry's successor as captain – does not believe his troublesome back is likely to betray him again. "I'm confident [of that]. I'm doing a lot of training in the rehab room and I do loads of stuff to prevent anything else happening. Hopefully I've got my finger on the pulse."
Monitoring Rooney over the past few weeks has been an exciting pastime and Ferdinand claims: "He's the best player in the world at the moment. I don't think there's anyone near him." A striker to scare the world in South Africa? "That's great but I don't think that far ahead, I just think about now at United. I might be selfish but I don't think about England at all. Then once we finish the season, we can sit back and evaluate and go from there."
Rooney's head, a feature of United's recent games, seems unlikely to become swollen. It is beginning suddenly to appear like an old one on comparatively young shoulders. "It's nice to hear people talk like that," Rooney said of his team-mate's praise. "It's not really a major thing for me. I'm playing well at the minute and the team are playing well so I'm pleased with that. Hopefully I can continue this until the end of the season and we'll see where it goes from there."
No danger, Rooney insists, of burn-out; although as United are chasing two more trophies to add to the Carling Cup and England yearn for the biggest of them all, the continued fitness of both men looks crucial to club and country.Reuse content