Contrasting moods set tone for a duel of significant magnitude

Wed, Feb 13, 2013, 00:00

Alex Ferguson was full of levity and banter. He began by cracking a joke about whether he could catch Real Madrid’s haul of nine European Cups, concluding that “you never know”. The impression he left was of a man who was never happier than when he was going into the big occasion.

At one point Manchester United’s manager squinted to make out who was asking a question. His eyes finally rested on a familiar face from Manchester’s press corps. “I thought I recognised that bloody voice,” he lamented, with a telltale smile. “Like poison creeping over my body . . . ”

A short while earlier, Jose Mourinho had occupied the same seat, wearing the look of a man who did not really want to be there. Mourinho’s default setting was to treat questions like carefully laid traps. His body language was so stiff, so unbreakable, that one member of his audience asked whether he still actually enjoyed his profession.

It was rare to see him so flat, when the occasion perhaps demanded a manager who would rev up the mood and project a positive impression. At one point Mourinho fixed his gaze on a row of English journalists and told them they should make sure they go out for the night with their Spanish counterparts.

“Speak to the guys who write all the stories.” He had just been asked whether it was true that he was operating under a sense of crisis, with a mutinous dressing room and a media that no longer had any place for him in their affections. “Are you worried about my crisis? I don’t think you are. I’m not.” Were his players behind him? “I am on the bench . . . they are on the pitch, so they are in front of me not behind me.” A nice line, but it was not a yes.

Too much can be read into a press conference sometimes. It is what happens on the Bernabeu pitch that matters, not an airless room in the bowels of the stadium the night before. Yet Mourinho, lest it be forgotten, was also the manager who once said a match could be won in advance by some carefully dispensed press conference gems.

Confidence

He was also the man who once had so much confidence in his Chelsea team he was emboldened enough to name their starting XI before a Champions League match against Barcelona. The Mourinho of 2013 now makes pointed remarks about the frequency with which Madrid’s newspapers reveal his team and tactics against his wishes. “I won’t be telling you what my team is,” he said.

The difference between the managers was stark but it was easy too to know what Ferguson meant when he talked about this being “the acid test” for his own team. For starters, Madrid have Cristiano Ronaldo, a player Mourinho described as belonging to “a higher footballing world”. There is also the fact that Mourinho has a habit of getting the better of Ferguson on these occasions. In the 14 times their teams have met, Ferguson has won only three, and one of those was on penalties.

“I’m not bothered about that,” he said. “I can’t win them all.” It is, nonetheless, a record that means Mourinho stands apart from any of Ferguson’s other rivals.

Ferguson promised that it would not be a game without goals and sounded like he meant what he said. “It won’t be 0-0. Definitely not. I can assure you of that. There will be goals.”

Containment

United’s manager has always preached the importance of scoring an away goal in two-leg ties. The trick here, perhaps, will be balancing that desire with the ploys of containment that visitors to the Bernabeu must implement.

Shinji Kagawa, he said, would be involved at some point but, beyond that, he was not willing to divulge whether he was preparing Phil Jones for a spoiling job on Ronaldo. Paul Scholes has been left in Manchester with a knee injury but, that apart, Ferguson has a fully fit squad. It was, he said, “a fantastic moment” for United to play this match.

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