The Olympiakos coach, Michel, was cutting his managerial teeth with Real Madrid’s second team back in 2007 when he decided to fast-track a promising 18-year-old by the name of Juan Mata.
Such is the wave of quiet confidence sweeping through Athens ahead of Tuesday night’s Champions League last 16 first leg, that he sounds genuinely disappointed that his former player will not be able to play.
“I would have liked to have given him a little disgusto,” says Michel. The word means nuisance or irritation. The Greek champions believe they have a chance of ruining Manchester United’s night, and effectively their season.
“You can’t imagine what this city has been like waiting for United to come,” Michel says. “There has even been disappointment that United are not going to train in the stadium the day before. They’ll get the kind of reception that a great club deserves but our respect will be expressed through competing with them. We’re not going to roll out the red carpet, we’re going to go for them.”
Michel, who regrets never facing English opposition as a player because English clubs were banned from European competition during the best years of his Real Madrid playing career, will tell his players to “enjoy it” on Tuesday. He knows that is not something United have been able to do too much this season.
“That might be where their problems against us start. If they are under pressure then they are more likely to make mistakes. We are going to try to make it as uncomfortable a night as possible for them.”
The reunion with Mata takes Michel back to the last game of the 2006-07 season when Real Madrid Castilla, the club’s second XI, played their final match in the second division, having been relegated to the third. Mata and Alvaro Negredo both scored as they won 3-1. Roberto Soldado and Javi Garcia, now at Tottenham and Manchester City, were also in that squad.
“OK, so we got relegated, but 15 or so of those players went on to have good careers, some in Madrid’s first team,” says Michel. “At that stage I think it’s easier to judge who isn’t going to make it than who is going to have the kind of career that Mata has had, but he has always been a player of great quality and discipline and also a real mental strength, even though that may not be obvious because of the way he looks physically. He is where he deserves to be. And to say he deserves to be at United is a big statement.”
Having nurtured him at 18, does Michel not feel a parental outrage at having watched Mata benched for a large part of the season at Chelsea? “Maybe the Chelsea that Jose Mourinho wants is nothing to do with the Chelsea [Andre] Villas-Boas wanted. It’s the law of football. Sometimes a new coach coming in works in your favour and sometimes it works against you.”
“Well, if they’ve got one to spare, we’ll take him here, we are very hospitable people,” Michel said. “Good players will always fit together. It’s a blessing for United.”
And of the players who will start against Olympiakos, Van Persie is clearly the player Michel fears most. “He is the kind of player you almost don’t give a position to. He is at his best when he has complete freedom. At the start of his career he played on the left, he has played behind the striker and as the centre-forward. He understands the game so well.”
Van Persie and Rooney have been the talk of Olympiakos supporters but it is what the name Manchester United conjures up that, more than anything else, has meant the club could have filled their 34,000-seat stadium three times over. The image is still dominated by Sir Alex Ferguson and the players he brought through.
“I remember seeing Ferguson at Aberdeen in the Cup-Winners’ Cup against us [Real Madrid, in 1983] – that was probably the first time I’d cursed him. He made winning every season seem normal for them. And if you look at the story of most big clubs, including United, they normally succeed when there is continuity and a nucleus of home-grown players inside the dressing room – that magnificent era when they had Giggs, the Neville brothers, Scholes, Beckham and Butt – some better or worse than others, but it doesn’t matter, they were made in Manchester. I don’t know if you have a phrase like Manchesteriano, but in Madrid we say Madridistas and the best eras were when the club had a nucleus of Madridistas.”
Michel believes United’s values have shone through in their long-term commitment to Moyes. “It’s tremendously strong” he says, “to give the manager a six-year contract. There will be a history before and after Ferguson at United, even if it is hard to imagine one.”
Michel does not see his compatriot Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich as Champions League favourites. “Maybe this opinion won’t count for much because I’m biased but I only see one winner – Real Madrid.
“They are the only team I have seen grow over the course of the season and I’ve never seen Cristiano Ronaldo like this. He is scoring the same amount of goals and always playing well, just like in any other season, but the way he now puts himself at the service of the team – now he really is a Real Madrid player.”
If his old side are his favourites for the tournament, surely after Saturday’s 4-0 win over OFI Crete that kept them a good 20 points clear at the top of the Greek league, his current side must be favourites tomorrow? “No, never,” Michel says. “But nobody can tell us that we can’t try. We’re going to go for them and maybe I’m strange but I prefer the second leg away from home.
“We’ll have around 4,000 Greeks at Old Trafford and they are very noisy. We had 34,000 here for our last home game and it sounded more like 90,000. You really get the feeling that they are with you. It will be emotional.”