Sir Alex Ferguson has hailed Cristiano Ronaldo as the ultimate Galactico ahead of Manchester United’s epic Champions League showdown with Real Madrid this week.
The United boss, who sold Ronaldo for a world-record £80million in 2009, declared that his former prodigy is even better than all-time greats Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo, two of Real’s most celebrated signings in recent years.
Ferguson has praised Ronaldo before but the comparison with Zidane — voted ahead of Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer as the best European player in history — underlines the difficulty United have in stopping the 28-year-old Portuguese superstar in the first leg at the Bernabeu on Wednesday night.
Ronaldo has scored an incredible 19 hat-tricks for Real since his arrival in Spain and Ferguson, who is up against his old rival Jose Mourinho, is considering a special role for his mobile Brazil right-back Rafael in containing his former team-mate, while hoping United’s own stars Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney can cause problems at the other end.
Placing Ronaldo in a historical context, Ferguson said: ‘Florentino Perez had all the Galacticos at Real Madrid when he was president first time around. He had Figo, Zidane, Roberto Carlos, Raul in that spell. But I don’t think any of those players were as good as Ronaldo.
‘Zidane was a fantastic player, Figo was a fantastic player. But not as good as Ronaldo. So I think Mourinho’s team are still living up to the reputation that Real Madrid can produce the top players.
‘Ronaldo has beaten all the records there. He’s beaten Di Stefano, Puskas, Hugo Sanchez. So obviously he is indelibly printed in their history now.
‘You have to say he is pivotal to all they do — 179 goals in 178 matches tells its own story. I think I might have to think about blackmail. I might have to tell a true story about him!
‘He’s a fantastic player. I knew he would improve tremendously, he was still young when he left us.’
Ronaldo was a teenager when he joined United from Sporting Lisbon to wear David Beckham’s No7 shirt and Ferguson said: ‘When he first came he wanted to display his tricks and technical abilities. But he overcame all the little flaws in his game and became a fully rounded player.
‘He would practise half-an-hour after every training session. It was a simple route to becoming a complete footballer. The more you practise the better you become, and it became a habit for him.’
The United boss, who has ruled out a permanent return to Old Trafford for Ronaldo — ‘You are talking hundreds of millions, I don’t see it’ — has admitted in the past he felt Real got a bargain even at £80m after the player made it clear he wanted to go.
‘I told them upstairs [the board]. We should have asked for £150m, we probably would have got it,’ added the United manager, whose public outpouring of support for Ronaldo contrasts with the treatment the player feels he receives from Real Madrid, who failed to support his campaign against Lionel Messi in the vote for World Player of the Year.
Although Ronaldo will be centre stage against his former club this week, he is by no means the only great player on show. Real have World Cup winners Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso, creators Mesut Ozil, Angel di Maria, Kaka and Luka Modric, and international strikers Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain to call on, even though legendary goalkeeper Iker Casillas is sidelined with a broken thumb.
In his own camp, Ferguson can call on Rooney and Van Persie, experienced defenders Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand and a burgeoning midfield partnership in Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley, with Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes around if needed.
‘Van Persie could be added to the list of greatest players I’ve had in my time here,’ said Ferguson. ‘I’d be delighted with that. He has been phenomenal for us in his first season. He’s given everybody a lift in terms of his knowledge of the game and his ability.’
Goals should not be a problem for United with Javier Hernandez, Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa there to support the main forwards.
‘If we can get three of them [RVP, Hernandez, Rooney] on 25 goals, it will get us in the ball-park position for honours,’ said Ferguson. ‘The way they’re going, the signs are good. Chicho [Hernandez] has 14, Wayne has 13, Robin 22.
‘We have 13 league games and, hopefully, at least half-a-dozen cup games left, there are plenty of games to reach those targets.’
To add to the intrigue, there is the relationship between Ferguson and Mourinho, who first came across each other when Porto knocked United out of the Champions League en route to winning it in 2004.
Ferguson has only beaten Mourinho twice in 14 meetings but the Special One has lost a bit of lustre in a difficult season in Madrid, where his side have fallen out of contention in the Liga title race and Mourinho has fallen out with senior players, including Casillas and Ramos.
Ferguson believes the situation should work in United’s favour, and when asked if he was looking forward to pitting his wits against Mourinho, he retorted: ‘I think he’s pitting his wits against me’.
The United manager went on: ‘It’s a great challenge, the two biggest clubs in the world. It’s a great game for us.
‘We’re still involved in three competitions, but their only target is the European Cup because they’ve been chasing their tails with Barcelona in the league.
‘It makes it harder for them in one way because it can add pressure. Jose has his sights on the European Cup this year, there’s no secret his desire to win it. He’d be the only person to win the European Cup with three different teams, so it’s a fantastic challenge for him.’ – Mail On Sunday