Sir Alex Ferguson has bullishly predicted that Manchester United will beat Barcelona when the two giants meet in Rome for the Champions League final next Wednesday. The Scot is insistent that the newly-crowned Spanish champions will be severely handicapped by the absence of their suspended first-choice full-backs, Daniel Alves and Eric Abidal, and centre-half Rafael Márquez.
He is also not convinced Yaya Touré, a holding midfielder deployed as a makeshift centre-back against Chelsea in the semi-finals, is at home in defence. The veteran Sylvinho is also expected to start at left-back but has enough big-game experience to cope with the sleepless nights lesser lights might endure when faced with the prospect of shackling an interchangeable United midfield.
"We are in a stronger position because of that," Ferguson said of the headache facing Barca counterpart Pep Guardiola. "Chelsea showed they can be 'beaten'," he added. "I take some encouragement from that." For all of their problems, on paper at least, the Catalan giants remain a potent force when crossing the half-way line and their recent 6-2 destruction of bitter rivals Real Madrid left Ferguson in a cold sweat.
"I watched the game," Ferguson explained. "It was an absolutely magnificent performance and I said to myself, 'Christ, we have to play them, possibly.'" Question marks remain about the fitness of Thierry Henry and, perhaps more significantly, Andrés Iniesta, but Ferguson has too many grey hairs to even contemplate the thought that United simply have to turn up at the Olympic Stadium on May 27 to become the first team in the modern era to successfully defend their European crown.
For all of United's superstars, it is curious that Ferguson has stuck his neck out for one of his unsung heroes by promising John O'Shea a start in defence. Ferguson's biggest concern centres on whether or not to gamble on key centre-back Rio Ferdinand's lack of match fitness. He has missed United's last three matches since sustaining a calf injury in the Champions League semi-final second leg victory over Arsenal at the Emirates at the start of May.
"I am hoping he will be fit for Sunday [against Hull] – if not he is doubtful for Wednesday that is for sure," warned the United manager. "I think he needs a game going into the Champions League final because him having not played for three weeks is too much."