Alex still the wily operator

Paul Hyland

ALEX Ferguson has been grinning from ear to ear for the last three days. Every time anyone mentioned Jose Mourinho his humour lifted towards manic. He can stop now.

He looked relaxed, almost laid-back in the build-up to last night's extravaganza at the Bernabeu and quietly pleased after it with an away goal and a draw in his pocket.

There were two fantastic headed goals from Danny Welbeck and Ronaldo, respectively, to savour but the story of the game was the fact that while Real Madrid owned the ball, Manchester United never really looked troubled.

The demeanour of the respective managers was clearly visible in the performance of the two teams and if this monster Champions League tie proved anything, it is that Ferguson has no master when it comes to strapping important bits and pieces of his character to the men he sends out to play.

While Mourinho fretted and frowned and the Madrid media gathered around what they believe to be a dead man walking, Ferguson tried everything he knew to take the pressure off his players.

He laughed a jovial laugh and smiled at hacks, undeniable evidence that he was up to something despite much talk before kick-off that this was a game mercifully free of mind games.

True, there was none of the loudhailer diplomacy favoured by both men when there's a lot at stake but Ferguson was still working his magic.

It worked and it showed on the pitch. Ferguson took all the plaudits aimed at him by Mourinho with the easy grace of a man used to praise and used to walking tall in football's grandest arenas.

His confidence worked its way by osmosis into his players and gave someone like Welbeck, young and with virtually no experience of a place like the Bernabeu in full cry, something to hold onto in one of the most intimidating places in world football.

Real Madrid, by contrast, looked tense and while they still held onto Mourinho's iron will and determination, they don't share his view of the future.

Across the United dugout area, animated faces chatted and chuckled and Ferguson was not exaggerating when he spoke before the game about the spirit in his group.

Ten metres away Mourinho's staff sat stony-faced and glum. It can't be easy to work in an environment laced with acrimony and unease and it has to be a disadvantage when you're playing a team with a manager like Ferguson who can push Wayne Rooney around the pitch like a toy soldier and still command his loyalty.

Rooney must be truly sick of the sight of Ronaldo. While the Portuguese preener was in his pomp at Old Trafford, Rooney had to subjugate his talent to provide a foil and create chances from the left flank.

Last night, he was deployed to help Rafael stop Ronaldo wide on the right and then called ashore early while Robin van Persie was left behind to keep Madrid honest.

In the Donbass Arena in Donetsk, Robert Lewandowski was scoring for Borussia Dortmund and giving Ferguson another nudge towards a deal which looks imminent.

Where will Rooney fit into a training ground crowded with top quality strikers while he continues to fall short of the level everyone believed he could reach?

Ferguson studies his players for every sign and Rooney is on trial just as much as any other player; maybe even more than any other player now.