James Lawton: This Manchester United side is better than 1999? Peter Schmeichel is talking fairy tales

Manchester United can field one team of good players in the best Alex Ferguson tradition but 11 great ones? No, it can't be claimed seriously

If anyone is entitled to talk up Manchester United's chances against Real Madrid tonight it is surely Peter Schmeichel. His enduring passion and partiality for the cause are an inevitable and eminently forgivable consequence of the glory to which he contributed so profoundly through the eight years before the historic treble of 1999. When he lifted the Champions League trophy in the Nou Camp, in the absence of the suspended Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, he symbolised perfectly the meaning of his team.

He was as impassioned as his boss, Sir Alex Ferguson, and he was also never known to admit to a mistake. There were a few over the years but too few to mention, certainly by him. Schmeichel was no doubt among the greatest goalkeepers we have ever seen and his magnificently defiant performance was exceeded only by the extent of his belief in both himself and his team.

Remember all that one-eyed but ultimately justified conviction? It has not been so difficult to do that listening to him before his former club's encounter with a Real Madrid threatening another masterpiece of counter-attack at Old Trafford in a few hours.

Here he is on the possibility of United not only winning a fourth European Cup later this spring but repeating the Treble success of 14 years ago: "I think it's a possibility but I also know how incredibly lucky you have to be. The starting point is to have a good team and a good squad and United's current squad is incredible. I agree with Fergie: it's probably the best squad he's had."

It's at this point, unfortunately, that Peter Boleslaw Schmeichel, the goalkeeper of the ages, begins to resemble his compatriot Hans Christian Andersen, the author of the world's greatest fairy tales.

Schmeichel declares: "Our group in 1999 didn't have two great players per position like now."

The reality is, of course, that it is something of a push to claim that United can field one team of great players. Good ones, fighting, match in and match out, in the best Ferguson tradition, no doubt, but 11 great ones? No, it can't be claimed seriously and doing so can only be to mistake the nature of Ferguson's astonishing achievement in leading the Premier League by such a distance and reaching the last 16 of the Champions League and the sixth round of the FA Cup.

It is an incredible performance even by his extravagant winning standards. He may not be doing it entirely with smoke and mirrors but what we are witnessing, surely, is one of Ferguson's most extraordinary feats of motivation.

If he made a superb move into the market when signing Robin van Persie, his changed financial possibilities made further significant team-strengthening impossible.

So Ferguson has eked out his thinnest resources since he first returned United to the front rank of English and European football. He has mocked the efforts of his better-heeled rivals Manchester City and Chelsea. He has reconjured the philosophy of a team who have simply rejected the concept of defeat.

However, in this stunning process he has hardly underpinned Schmeichel's astonishing argument that he is better equipped in playing strength than he was before his Champions League and title triumphs of '99 and 2008.

Today he has Van Persie performing match-winning chores of superb consistency, Rio Ferdinand finding an especially rich vein of form and Wayne Rooney spasmodically reminding us that he can be a world-class performer. That is the core of United's strength and, if it is impressive, it does not run either so wide or so deep as when Ferguson hit those earlier peaks.

In '99 United had a little good fortune as well as vast resolve in beating Bayern Munich at the Nou Camp without the immense influence of Keane and a Scholes moving brilliantly towards the prime of his career. However, in the second leg of the semi-final in Turin their defeat of Juventus was powerful evidence that they were indeed the strongest team in the tournament. They also had in Schmeichel, the world's best goalkeeper by some distance, Gary Neville and Denis Irwin (both of whom made Sir Bobby Charlton's lifetime United XI), Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and a striking trio of Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham, plus the match-winner Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Here, plainly, there was a depth of resource not so apparent today, a point which Schmeichel to some extent concedes when he suggests that David de Gea, a hero at the Bernabeu in the first leg of tonight's tie, might well be sold in the summer if Ferguson decides to make a fresh attempt to seek again some of the security supplied by Edwin van der Sar.

The superbly reliable Van der Sar was one source of confidence in Moscow in 2008. There were also Cristiano Ronaldo, Scholes, Giggs, Carlos Tevez and a Nemanja Vidic asserting his right to be considered the best central defender in the world.

None of this is to imply that United are without serious prospects of progress tonight in front of their own people. They showed impressive competitive character in Madrid, when Real still managed to produce some striking evidence that they were indeed beginning to sharpen the counter-attacking game which in the last week has twice got the better of Barcelona. It is merely to say that perhaps we should be prepared to categorise a potentially famous victory as something other than another statement of Manchester United's superior strength.

If it happens it will, with all respect to the great goalkeeper, be less a Danish fairy story, more another case of extraordinary, perhaps even unique will.

McIlroy should heed the wisdom of Nicklaus

As Rory McIlroy returns to work this week we can only hope that he listens more carefully to the words of (speaking officially and no doubt for quite some time) the world's greatest golfer than he did to those of one who was merely in the upper bracket of historic achievement.

The wunderkind from Holywood shrugged away Sir Nick Faldo's warning that a change of clubs might bring, along with vast financial reward, the need for a fine but crucial realigning of his stunning skills. However, penetrating or not, Faldo's advice was deserving of at least a little public respect. Faldo has six major titles and is generally acknowledged as the supreme example of a player whose success was forged on an anvil of the hardest work.

Jack Nicklaus (18 majors) also slaved to make his name, recalling at one point of anguished, though brief decline, how his father had burned braziers on the local course in Ohio to unfreeze the tees and give him the opportunity for midwinter practice.

It may be a different world but some priorities remain the same and Nicklaus, an admirer and sometimes confidant as McIlroy rocketed to his world No 1 ranking, has made clear his shock and disapproval at his young friend's decision to walk off the course in Florida and later blame the onset of toothache.

Nicklaus was emphatic in his displeasure, saying: "I don't know how bad this wisdom tooth was hurting but he should not have walked off the course and if he had thought about it for five minutes he wouldn't have done so, but on this occasion I think he got it wrong."

Five minutes is perhaps not too long to weigh the difference between a lifetime champion and someone still to learn quite all that is involved. If the naturally brilliant McIlroy cannot manage to listen to Jack Nicklaus, there are surely some bad and bewildering days ahead.

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