Fergie's flames burn bright
Competitive juices of United boss show no sign of abating as season nears climax, writes Duncan White
Alex Ferguson apparently hates seeing himself on television, yet the deeper his distaste for his own celebrity, the closer he seems to move to the centre of attention.
It's a side-effect of the remorseless success. Ferguson is indefatigable, his ambition is insatiable and the grand patriarch of the game is in the mood to grow his already formidable legacy.
"There is a real excitement because we are still in the European Cup and the draw is next Friday," he said, in light spirits as he pauses before the intensity of the run-in. "This is the reason you start out in this job; to have these moments. You want to experience a career where you are getting involved with the best games possible.
"I still remember the thrill of getting promoted with St Mirren and going to play Celtic and Rangers. Those were the biggest moments of my life at that time. And then on to Aberdeen to achieve what I did. That's what you do with a challenge, you set yourself to be the best you can possibly be. I am at the right club here and every game is a different type of challenge because if you lose a game at this club, it means something and you try to avoid those kind of games."
This has been a remarkable week for Ferguson. It began with a well-intentioned but firm reprimand for Wayne Rooney and the patriotic enthusiasm which brought an injury, and was immediately followed by a return to the top of the Premier League with the kind of miserly win characteristic of Ferguson teams on the title home-straight.
The following morning, his name was on the front pages, a high-profile report alleging his private support for the Red Knights, the group of wealthy investors seeking to buy United from the Glazers. Ferguson was categorical in his denial of the story and continues to grumpily avoid efforts to lure him out on the subject of the Red Knights or the green-and-gold grassroots fan movement.
More comfortable territory for Ferguson was the 4-0 thumping of Milan in the Champions League. In tactical terms it was a first-round knockout, the promising but naive Leonardo appearing out of his weight class against the Govan heavyweight.
Everything is coming together. Ferguson believes they have finally sorted Rio Ferdinand's worrying back injury while John O'Shea and Owen Hargreaves are also close to returning from their own complicated injuries. Edwin van der Sar has brought stability, Nani is starting to fulfil his potential and the indefatigable pair of Darren Fletcher and Park Ji-Sung are probably still running as you read this. Even the old guard are in rare form: Paul Scholes and Gary Neville appear to be playing their way into new contracts.
Then, of course, there is Rooney and his 30 goals, unbelievably making light of Ronaldo's absence. As one protege flourishes, another is frustrated. The accepted view is that, for the previous two seasons, Ferguson had Rooney make tactical sacrifices in order to allow Ronaldo to maximise his considerable ability. Liberated, Rooney is showing his own true ability as United surge towards a third straight Champions League final. Ronaldo, shorn of his selfless sidekick, is left kicking his heels after Real Madrid's sixth straight exit before the quarter-final stage.
Ferguson always suspected Ronaldo would find it hard to adjust to the unremitting attention that comes with playing in Madrid.
Having sent Ronaldo a 'happy birthday' text at the beginning of last month, Ferguson received a reply telling him how much he was missed. With the Real manager, Manuel Pellegrini, facing mutinous twittering from the players and supposedly facing the sack, no wonder Ronaldo misses a man who has been a formative father-figure.
"I like Ronaldo, he's a good lad, straight as a die, a good personality,'' said Ferguson. "Jorge Mendes [his agent] wanted Cristiano to stay with us, which is a credit to him. He wanted the best for his player. The best thing is not always financial or a celebrity status: a normal life is always a good thing to have, too. We could have turned down the money but Ronaldo wanted to go.
"I don't think Real Madrid is an easy club to play for. There is a circus attached to it. It has a lot of great parts about it that make it attractive but he knows the value of what he had here. What they have here is protection. They come to training every day and there is no one here but us. At Real Madrid and the Italian clubs there are 2,000 people watching training. The media film the training sessions every day.
"You'd like to think he would want to come back here but I wouldn't have thought he would come back. I don't think he will stay at Real Madrid all his life -- there are other challenges for him."
One Portuguese who is definitely returning home this week is Ferguson's former sparring partner, Jose Mourinho, as Internazionale visit Chelsea.
The United manager certainly views the winners of Tuesday's game, along with Barcelona, as United's chief rivals for the Champions League, teams to be avoided in Friday's draw.
"It is a big one," Ferguson said. "Chelsea are hard to beat at Stamford Bridge but it is a good Inter team -- an improved Inter team and Jose will have them well-organised. It won't be an easy game for Chelsea. I think Jose has them playing now as he wants -- it's his team. He has changed the system and they are not bad, not bad at all.
"It will rest on how they handle Didier Drogba. They don't have a great deal of height at the back. They have Lucio, who is a reasonable size, but Walter Samuel is not big, he's only about 5ft 9ins or so. He's tough but not particularly big so Drogba's size could be a problem.
"There's all that stuff about Jose going back. It may also help Chelsea, in the sense that they want to beat their own manager going back to Stamford Bridge."
This is Ferguson at his best, absorbed in the football, relishing the contests with rival coaches. He has warned in the past that when he retires -- this time in earnest -- he will do so without warning. He will simply walk away when he doesn't feel the hunger.
In the thick of the action, though, retirement could not be further from his mind. "I don't think about the future, I don't think too far ahead because you never know, you might not be here."
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