“It’s ridiculous to think,” said Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson ahead of United’s 2-0 victory over the Toffees on Sunday. “That we play on the Sunday and Real Madrid play on the Saturday with that extra day’s rest.”
Thus grew a thousand headlines – and whether Ferguson’s “anger” at the Premier League’s Faustian pact with Sky television is genuine or merely another tabloid circus, there is little doubt United’s manager has a point. While Real rolled over mid-table Sevilla far shy of breaking sweat on Saturday, Ferguson’s side faced a relentlessly physical encounter with with David Moyes ever-rugged Everton at Old Trafford 24 hours later.
It is not the first occasion on which Ferguson’s has openly criticised match scheduling ahead of a key European tie – and unlikely the last. After all, matches have long been scheduled not when they are most appropriate for supporters, nor indeed managers, but peak viewing times.
In the age of multi-billion pound contracts this devil has strong pull.
“We are not giving our teams a chance to be successful in Europe, but there’s nothing you can do about it,” continued Sir Alex.
“It’s nothing to do with the FA, it’s the Premier League. They agreed a contract with TV and they’re in control. You can’t reject it. What can you do? Not turn up? I’d love to do that!
“I’ve complained about and it and you’ve heard my complaints. Do you think they listen? Other countries do make sacrifices for their top teams in Europe.”
In lieu of the extra rest United fly out to Madrid on Tuesday with Ferguson having taken the bold move to deploy a strong side against Everton on Sunday. While many expected the Scot to risk a weaker side against Moyes’ outfit, Sir Alex takes significant credit in changing his mind after Manchester City’s collapse at Southampton on Saturday evening.
Ferguson’s infallible logic, shared by many supporters, was that victory over Everton would be a significant step towards English title number 20.
His players responded in kind, with right-back Rafael da Silva superb in shackling Steven Pienaar, and Phil Jones inseparable from United’s erstwhile tormentor Marouane Fellaini. Up front Wayne Rooney roamed with delicious menace, and Robin van Persie pulled Everton’s defence apart with his now customary movement.
There was none of the nervousness of last April, when United lost two goals against Everton in the final seven minutes to blow victory, and with it the league title.
Instead, the reward for Ferguson’s audacity is a healthy lead in the Premier League and an opportunity to rest players later in the season should United remain in contention on three fronts.
“I was going to make about seven changes but when I got the result, I felt this was a more important game for us because it could give us a comfortable lead,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.
“We can make changes later on in the season. It is realistic; we knew that if we got a good result today then we’d be in a positive position. We have got to win our games anyway, so it didn’t matter what happened to City on Saturday. That’s the way we should look at it and I’ve been saying that for week. If we concentrate on our own game then we’ll be okay.”
Meanwhile, Madrid hammered Sevilla 4-1 at the Bernabéu on Saturday, with former Red Cristiano Ronaldo claiming yet another Real hat-trick – his 36th, 37th, and 38th goals of storming campaign.
Ronaldo’s second, a long-range left-footed drive after a dribble that took out three Sevilla defenders, will remind United’s supporters, if any is required, of just how much damage the Portuguese forward can inflict. Ferguson may well deploy Jones to nullify Ronaldo’s threat; in this mood there is little anybody can do.
In keeping with Ferguson, Real manager José Mourinho picked a strong side to face Unai Emery’s struggling outfit. Ronaldo started the fixture alongside Gonzalo Higuian, Karim Benzema and Káká in a multi-talented attacking unit.
Not that Mourinho has a league title to concern him, with Real now 16 points behind Barcelona in La Liga. Defeat to Granada last weekend, in which Ronaldo scored the first own goal of his career, sealed Madrid’s fate if any doubt remained in an increasingly one-sided Spanish title race.
Indeed, it is Europe that offers the Portuguese coach his best chance of salvation this season, with Real facing Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey semi-final second leg later this month having drawn the opening game 1-1 at Bernabéu.
Little wonder Mournho is relishing the United tie, with the 50-year-old seeking to eclipse his old friend Ferguson in claiming a third Champions League crown.
“It is the match the world is waiting for,” Mourinho told MUTV with the coach’s customary flamboyance.
“People think we are under pressure because a big team will be out. But it is the kind of match we want and the people are not waiting for any other game. I hope we give them what they want.”
The two managers met at Old Trafford after the Reds completed victory over Everton, with Mourinho in Manchester to scout United ahead of next week’s Champions League tie.
“I feel privileged about [the meeting] because he is such an important person in the world of football and, more importantly, he is good person.
“I have always had a fantastic relationship with him and I am proud of it. We have had so many matches between us which started with Porto. We had some with Chelsea, Inter and now Real. Of course, I want to win and he wants to win, but I believe the loser will have a little bit of space to feel a little bit happy because of the friendship.”
The advantage lies with Real, of course, and not just because of the extra rest. Los Merengues haven’t lost at home in more than 30 matches. It is a statistic that places United’s task in context, 24 hours additional rest or otherwise.
Ferguson may regret deploying so many of his stars against Everton if a jaded team suffers defeat at Bernabéu, but with the title now within reach few supporters will concur.
“When you shake hands with the devil you have to pay the price,” Ferguson once said of English football’s deal with Sky.
But it is the hell of City’s title triumph that fans, and Ferguson it seems, recalled with sharp focus on Sunday.