They were seated in a row, three of the men most threatened by the revolution at Real Madrid – the managers of Manchester United, Milan and Bayern Munich. Both Sir Alex Ferguson and Leonardo have seen their finest player leave for the Bernabeu while, at Bayern, Louis van Gaal has been desperately trying to prevent Franck Ribéry from joining Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo.
These kind of press conferences – this was to promote the Audi Cup – are usually pleasant, slightly dull affairs, where compliments come easily. However, as soon as Madrid's name was mentioned and it was suggested that the balance of power in the Champions League had shifted to Spain, the hackles went up.
Ferguson said that Real Madrid had so little balance to their squad that he had told Ronaldo he would end up playing centre-half. He contrasted their attempts to buy success with the way the European champions, Barcelona, fresh from spending £40m on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, have grown their squad organically.
"There is a great example of a team [that cannot buy success]. It was called Sunderland and spent so much money that it was known as the Bank of England club. They didn't win anything and in the end they got themselves relegated," said Ferguson, recalling the 1958 implosion on Wearside.
"I am not saying that Real Madrid will get relegated but they will have plenty of problems with balance. I do not know how Manuel Pellegrini [the Real coach] plans to pick his side because it has no balance.
"I told Ronaldo before he flew out that he will end up playing centre-half because I don't think they have one. I don't envy Pellegrini picking his team. Barcelona are different because they have grown their squad properly and added one or two players each season. They have a fantastic midfield and they will be once again a threat to everyone taking part in the Champions League.
"I think it will be difficult for Milan and Manchester United to replace players of the standard of Ronaldo and Kaka. But it is in the nature of our club that we cope. The expectation is still there and the drive and ambition will still be there. It will be difficult but we will do it."
His fellow managers joined him in rounding on Madrid. Van Gaal suggested there were some coaches, like Ferguson, who could mould a group of expensive individuals into a team – modestly he included himself on that list. "I do not think that the balance of power in European football will change because you have to make a team, you just cannot go out and buy one," he said. "I hope the trainers of Barcelona and Real Madrid can make a team out of so many individuals but I don't know if they can. Sometimes you can, Alex Ferguson has done it for 20 years and I believe that I have managed to do it sometimes but I know it is very, very hard."
Leonardo, burdened with the double task of taking over from Carlo Ancelotti at San Siro and replacing Kaka, acknowledged that Madrid "have great economic power" but reminded the audience of the collapse of the galactico project that saw Perez spend £131m on Zidane, Ronaldo, Figo and Beckham – a team that became less effective as more stars were added to it.
"You can buy up good talent and create possibilities for yourself but it is not easy to manage players like Kaka, Ronaldo and Karim Benzema," he said. "You need more than just money to build a team and you need more than talent. You need spirit and we will have to see if Real Madrid have this spirit."
Ferguson revealed that Owen Hargreaves would not be returning to Munich to join the squad for the Audi Cup that celebrates the centenary of the car maker with a tournament featuring United, Milan, Bayern and Boca Juniors. The midfielder had not been expected to play but Ferguson had hoped he could train. "He is still recuperating in America," he said. "He has had a major operation on both knees and that is a serious business. He will not be rushed back."Reuse content