Fergie sets his sights on slice of 'history'
Spring time means show-time for Alex Ferguson. These are the nights the Manchester United manager loves, travelling to the great stages like the Allianz Arena, facing a marquee name in Bayern Munich and pitting his wits against a stellar coaching rival like Louis van Gaal.
His eyes gleaming at the thought of tonight's game, Ferguson revels in Europe's grand drama.
The smell of the greasepaint here may actually be burned bratwurst but Ferguson was palpably a man in his element before training last night.
The veteran European campaigner, twice a winner of club football's most prestigious prize, also knows that his team have matured into a formidable force away from home, boasting the tactical nous and strong temperament to withstand any test.
"Europe is always something I dreamed I would be involved in,'' he reflected. "When I first went into European football with Aberdeen, we played Real Madrid in a final (the 1983 Cup-winners' Cup) and that was the start of the dream.
"We also played Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals and Liverpool (in the 1980-81 European Cup) who battered us. These are nights where I said 'this is what I want, this is what I'm going to have all my life'.
"And then when they changed the format from the European Cup to the Champions League you have all the best teams there and hope you play them, AC Milan, Juventus, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, all the historically best teams. We have got our cake and are eating it now in Europe."
Even without Arjen Robben and probably Franck Ribery, a tie with Bayern, four-times winner of the trophy, is never a piece of Black Forest gateau and Ferguson knows his team must be on their mettle.
"I have great admiration for Bayern; we are playing history. Teams with a certain history play with pride and we have to contend with that. They have a lot of good players and a great coach.'' Even Van Gaal's observation that Bayern are "not at 'level one' like United'' was treated with a wry smile by Ferguson, who should be able to spot some mind games at a hundred paces.
"He's a clever man,'' replied Ferguson. "I don't pay any attention to that.
"We can't forget Bayern's achievements. I was surprised to discover we had never beaten them in a European tie, apart from in Barcelona (in the famous 1999 Champions League final), so we'd like to change that.''
Ferguson remembers the long road to the Nou Camp in the 1990s, all those chastening defeats in Italy, those breakaway goals by Alen Boksic and painful lessons in the importance of holding midfielders and intelligence on the counter attack.
"It's now 17 games undefeated away from home,'' said Ferguson, not needing to mention that the Rome loss to Barcelona in last season's final counts as a neutral venue.
"That's an indication of the team's maturity and understanding of how to play in Europe. There have been some fantastic challenges in those 17 games. We have addressed the weaknesses of our game some years back away from home.''
Gone are the days when United would return from Monaco, smiling after a 0-0 draw, only for David Trezeguet to strike at Old Trafford and send them crashing out.
"Scoring away from home is without doubt a big advantage; we must try to do that. I remember coming here with Aberdeen and drawing 0-0 in a quarter-final tie in 1983. Everyone was delighted apart from me. I sensed the danger. Although we managed to get through, Bayern scored twice at Pittodrie. Scoring will be important.''
United's manager raised an eyebrow when talk turned to Robben's verdict that the English champions were over-reliant on a certain No 10.
"Wayne Rooney has had an exceptional season; he has elevated himself into one of the best players in the world now,'' agreed Ferguson. "But you ask other coaches and they will also talk about (Paul) Scholes, (Ryan) Giggs, (Darren) Fletcher.
"Nemanja Vidic on Saturday (against Bolton) was the best performance in the world by a centre-half. I didn't see any other game but that was the best performance from a centre-back for years.''
Ferguson dismissed the call by the Bolton manager, Owen Coyle, for the FA to punish Vidic for an alleged elbow on Johan Elmander.
"What's the story about those in glasshouses?'' retorted Ferguson. "Vidic came in at half-time with a lump the size of an egg on his head, a swollen jaw and a black eye. I would be amazed if he was charged.
"It was clear he had his eye on the ball, it was a clear header from the centre-back; there was no intent whatsoever, no eyes towards the centre-forward. I'm not sure he knew he was even there; his sole intention was to attack that ball and head it clear and he did that.''
The FA is not expected to take any action, leaving the Serb to bring strength to United's defence.
"The return of Vidic, (Rio) Ferdinand and (Edwin) Van der Sar has made a big difference. The back four has been solid again. We were very fragile (during their absence through injury) but you can see the solidity now.
"It's as the saying goes -- strong at the back, strong as a team and it's true. We are looking very strong now." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Bayern Munich v Man United
Live, TV3, Sky Sports 2, 7.45