London - Manchester United against Real Madrid. It is the game that changed football, between two managers who have certainly changed football, featuring the player Sir Alex Ferguson has been saddest to see leave in his 26 years at Old Trafford.
It was a meeting between United and Madrid, a sizzling seven-goal encounter in 2003, that persuaded Roman Abramovich, who was a guest that night, to buy a football club and so transform the financial landscape of the European game.
It was Ferguson who rewrote the modern management manual and Mourinho who then added a couple of new chapters. Mourinho calls Ferguson ‘the boss’. Ferguson says - the Special One’s good looks aside - they boast the same qualities. And then there’s Cristiano Ronaldo.
The world’s most expensive player and, alongside Lionel Messi, the world’s finest. In Ferguson’s mind everyone leaves United when the time is right. Either when he says so or when they choose to retire.
But Ronaldo was different.
Ronaldo was the best he’s ever had - someone who even managed to alter Gary Neville’s view on how the game should be played - and he left before he had even peaked.
On March 5 Ronaldo will return to Old Trafford for the first time since his £80million transfer to Madrid in 2009. ‘It’s the tie of the round,’ said Ferguson on Thursday. ‘It’s a great opportunity for our fans to see Cristiano again and also meet up with Jose - I’ll need to order some good wine.’
It is the game. The game that offers so much and evokes so many memories, too.
In 2000, Real Madrid beat United 3-2 at Old Trafford thanks to a masterful peformance by the Argentina midfielder Redondo. Then there was the clash in 2003 when the other Ronaldo, the Brazil striker, scored a hat-trick at Old Trafford which convinced Abramovich to pay £140million for a football club.
There is also the electrifying image of Mourinho storming down the touchline at Old Trafford in 2004 when Francisco Costinha’s last-minute equaliser for Porto knocked United out of the Champions League.
This time United and Real clash at the Bernabeu on February 13 and then play at Old Trafford on March 5, three days after Real host Barcelona in La Liga’s El Clasico.
It is the European Cup or nothing for Mourinho now after Real slipped to defeats against Getafe, Sevilla and Betis in La Liga. Real’s defence of their title is faltering after falling a staggering 13 points behind Barcelona just 16 games into the season.
Mourinho (below) is threatening to walk away long before his contract expires in 2016.
‘He has a contract for another four years and he is one of the best coaches in the world,’ explained Real official Emilio Butragueno here at yesterday’s draw.
No-one listening really believed him. Mourinho’s dream is to win European Cups for clubs from three different countries and then head back to England to replace Ferguson at United. Ferguson admitted it could happen in a recent ITV documentary about Mourinho, championing his cause as he spoke of the pair’s special relationship.
They took afternoon tea at the Lowry Hotel in Manchester ahead of Real’s group game with City on November 21, gossiping about Rafa Benitez’s arrival at Chelsea.
Ferguson also spoke, briefly, with Ronaldo in the minutes before Real boarded the team bus for the Group D clash at the Etihad.
This will be Ronaldo’s game, facing his former manager for the first time since he quit following the Champions League final defeat against Barcelona in Rome.
He was immense for United, scoring 118 goals in 292 appearances following his move from Sporting Lisbon in 2003. United have missed his firepower, his ability to break at speed and bulldoze opposition defences with those twisting feet.
Neville said he ‘redefined football’ when he returned from the 2006 World Cup in Germany. He said he was the best player on the planet during that period.
This is the game everyone wants to watch. Edwin van der Sar, in attendance on Thursday for Ajax’s Europa League draw, stopped United’s secretary John Alexander on the way out of the auditorium to reserve two tickets.
Former United goalkeeper Van der Sar has firsthand experience of Ronaldo, working with him day in, day out on the training pitches at Carrington.
‘He made no secret of the fact he wanted to be the best player in the world and he worked hard to get there,’ said Van der Sar.
‘At 19 I didn’t think he could do it. You have to see how players react after one good season, or after they sign a big contract, or when they get booed.
‘Ronnie could handle all of that. He was always in at 9am doing his exercises and working his way through a strengthening programme. On the training pitches he would work hard on crossing, free-kicks, everything really.
‘He was always busy, which is why he is one of the best players in the world. He will be looking forward to this game.’
Ronaldo won three titles, an FA Cup and the Champions League in 2008 with United, but his dream was to play for Real Madrid. He forced the move and although there have been signs of tension with Mourinho in recent weeks, they will have to focus on this tie together in order to win.
Ferguson talks of the new training methods Mourinho introduced to English football when he became Chelsea manager in 2004.
Chelsea beat United in the opening game of that season and won their next seven games before finishing a staggering 18 points ahead of Fergie’s team. The next season, when he was asked about the threat of United to Chelsea’s chances of winning the title, Mourinho replied: ‘I’m more concerned by the threat of bird flu. I mean it.’
On February 13, when they collide in the Bernabeu, he will mean business once again.