| 9.9°C Dublin

Fergie: Rooney is Reds' Pele

He climbed to the press conference table and dealt out the diplomacies, just as he has in his 17 previous Champions League campaigns.

A nod to the threat of Benfica's Pablo Aimar and the club's European pedigree. A smile and a handshake for the translator.

But the elephant in the room was another football club beginning and ending with the letters B and A. From now until the spring, Barcelona are the only genuine question where United are concerned, and whether the 69-year-old manager's re-engineered young side are somehow capable of bridging the gulf which was exposed last May at Wembley.

"It's the first game. Give me a break, will you. Give me a break," Ferguson replied when the Barcelona question was put to him. Ryan Giggs was more forthcoming and more blunt about the challenge which might lie ahead.

Lionel Messi is "probably the best player over the last 20 years," said Giggs, one of five of the older United players who may finally get a chance to muscle out the youngsters in the opening Group C match tonight. Pep Guardiola's side will also carry more confidence into the tournament, by dint of their two final triumphs over United, he added.

"What they've got now is more experience and confidence from winning things that they didn't have back (when we beat them in 2008) but we've got to overcome that if we come up against them again."

Ferguson mellowed and finally discussed the issue, though his old theme about the need for United to become one of the five-time winners who make an indelible mark on the tournament was less forceful than usual.


"It's different winning the Champions League today than it was 30 years ago because all the best teams are in it now," he said, reeling off the list of sides who stand in his way between now and a 12 May date in Munich.

For now Ferguson, whose side are unbeaten away from home in Europe for 18 months and did not concede a goal in 540 minutes on the road before the final in the last campaign, can at least witness the fear his young

side carry on to the continent.

The Estadio da Luz carries bad memories for Wayne Rooney, whose 2004 European Championship ended with a broken metatarsal in the first half of England's quarter-final with Portugal, but Rooney, with his 10 goals in six competitive games, carries a far bigger threat in the stadium.

Benfica manager Jorge Jesus had no hesitation last night in declaring Rooney to be the prime Premier League threat, in an assessment of the striker's skills which concluded with Ferguson suggesting that the main reason he could not be compared to Pele was skin colour.

"Look at Pele," Ferguson said. "He was a very aggressive attacker as well who could look after himself. So can Rooney.

"But he's white, completely white," Ferguson grinned.

Ferguson is

backing Rooney and Javier Hernandez to each hit the 25-goal mark this season. The pair have contributed 10 between them in United's stellar start to the season, with Rooney currently topping the Premier League scoring charts with eight.


"Two years ago Wayne's target was to go over 30 and he reached it very quickly," Ferguson said. "If he gets to that again I will be delighted because with Javier's ability to score we could have two goalscorers well above 25."

Having left Rio Ferdinand at home as a precaution and with Nemanja Vidic yet to start training after suffering a calf injury in the opening weekend win at West Brom, Ferguson needs to pay careful attention to his line-up ahead of a packed fixture list that includes Sunday's home showdown with Chelsea. Darren Fletcher, Ryan Giggs, Park Ji-sung and Dimitar Berbatov will all hope to start their first game of the season.