Funny what a multi-million pound contract will do for the nerves. Had he followed his original plan, Sir Alex Ferguson would be preparing for his last ever Champions' League quarter-final. And he would be very worried that it might end in anti-climactic defeat. Instead, the Scot is now able to approach the two legs against Deportivo La Coruña as "just another tie".
Well, not quite. While Ferguson agrees that he has taken some of the pressure off himself and the players by agreeing a new three-year contract last month, this year's edition of Europe's showpiece, which culminates in his city of birth, is still the one he most fancies winning. The final will be held at Hampden Park, from where Ferguson would like nothing more than to amble home with the trophy tucked under his arm. "I enjoy winning anything, anywhere," he said, "but of course it would be nice to get something in Glasgow."
Judging by the quality of their quarter-final opponents, Manchester United would be wise to put all thoughts of Scotland in May to one side. Ferguson must be mightily relieved that this is no longer his final European lap, because Deportivo were the team everyone wanted to avoid. With good reason. Having beaten Real Madrid in the Bernabeu, dismantled Arsenal at Highbury and stunned United at Old Trafford in the group stages, the Spanish champions are the type of opponents who cause attack-minded sides serious problems.
"This is both an exciting draw and a worrying one," Ferguson conceded. "There is no doubt that their previous results against us will give them confidence. Going forward, I would say that Deportivo are the best team left in the competition. They enjoy playing against teams who play open football as well. I spoke to the Celta Vigo manager [Victor Fernandez] and he told me they didn't want to finish top of their group. We'll have to be really sharp."
Having lost 2-1 away to Deportivo when playing their unconvincing 4-1-4-1 system, and then surrendered 3-2 in the return match despite adopting a more attacking formation, United will have to be at their tactical best. "Yes, they played good football, but they never totally dominated us," Ferguson said. "From our point of view, the two previous games told us a lot about them. In the first match, for example, some of their football was terrific, but that doesn't change the fact that we should have won.
"We scored minutes before half-time and should have buried them in the second half. Then we lost two goals in the last five minutes. That should never happen. In the other game, you have to give them credit for having a go at us. It was end-to-end stuff, fantastic to watch, but again we gave goals away very cheaply."
All going well, Ferguson's men can expect to be spared Fabien Barthez's two howlers, which all but gifted the Old Trafford match to Deportivo. That said, the unpredictable Frenchman was clowning around again in midweek, when he let a back pass roll under his foot and then just centimetres wide of his post during France's 5-0 win over Scotland. "Everyone remembers the monumental errors at home to Deportivo," Ferguson said. "At this level, we simply can't afford to make any errors of that nature."
Britain's most garlanded manager agrees that defensive mistakes have cost his team dear this season, although he insists these have usually been of an individual nature. "We're getting better, but you never know with us because it's happened so many times this year," he said. "We know that when we do concentrate we're very difficult to beat. That's what we have to focus on."
Ferguson reserved special praise for his 36-year-old French central defender Laurent Blanc, who he feels has been unfairly targeted since the controversial sale of Jaap Stam. "He has received a lot of criticism this season, most of which has been blind. I don't just select him because of who he is. I would pick a one-eyed gypsy if I thought for one second it would help win us games."
He added: "The truth is that some of Laurent's performances have been absolutely sublime. There are times when I doubt you could get a better showing from any other centre-half in Europe. Hopefully, he might consider changing his plan to retire at the end of the season."
Ferguson, who is delighted with his own decision to carry on, believes that Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Barcelona will join his club in the last four of the competition. Whether or not the United crop of 2001-02 are good enough to fulfil his Glasgow ambition remains to be seen, but at least he can look forward to next year. In 2003, the final will be contested in that other place he likes to call home – Old Trafford.Reuse content