MADRID: Outwitting Alex Ferguson has never been so important for Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho as he potentially puts his short- and long-term future on the line in the last-16 match against Manchester United in the Champions League.
With Madrid trailing Barcelona by 16 points in the Spanish league, the pressure is on Mourinho to deliver success in Europe and win the continent's most glittering prize for the club for the 10th time.
Widespread opinion in Spain suggests his job depends on it.
In another intriguing sub-plot surrounding arguably the most glamorous match in European football, the Portuguese coach may also see the game as an audition for his chances of replacing Ferguson at United when the 71-year-old Scot ends his long stint at Old Trafford.
Mourinho has lost just two of his 14 meetings with Ferguson down the years and has long been viewed as the favorite to succeed the man who has become a close friend. They will likely share a bottle of red wine after Wednesday's first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu, and after the return leg on March 5.
Ferguson is in no doubt about who is carrying the bigger expectations ahead of what Mourinho has dubbed “the match the world is waiting for.”
“I think their target is the European Cup,” Ferguson said.
“They got a bad start in the league and were chasing their tail a bit because Barcelona's form has been incredible. I think Jose has set his targets firmly on the European Cup, no doubt about that.
“It can be harder for us but there's a bit of pressure for them, too. At this moment in time, we're involved in three (competitions).”
Ferguson has also been hyping up the match between clubs who have won the title 12 times between them.
“I think it is (the ultimate matchup), probably even more than a United-Barcelona game,” Ferguson said.
“United and Madrid have that romance about them and that honour and worldwide appeal so it probably is the biggest game you can get in the European Cup.
“I think as soon as the draw was made, there was that anticipation about the tie.”
Adding further spice to the occasion is the presence of prolific Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo, who will face his old club for the first time since leaving United in 2009 for a world-record fee of 80 million pounds (now $124 million).
Ronaldo scored a hat trick in a weekend victory over Sevilla in the Spanish league, taking his tally of Madrid goals for 2013 to 13 already as he continues to smash the club's goalscoring records.
“I hope he keeps it up,” Madrid defender Sergio Ramos said, “he is a unique player on our squad.”
Madrid will be the slight favorite in the first leg, having won eight of their last nine home games in the Champions League.
“In my opinion, Real Madrid have a better team,” Ronaldo told UEFA.com, “but we have to show that on the pitch because United are a very united team and always have been in recent years.”
Mourinho rested midfielders Xabi Alonso, Mesut Oezil and Sami Khedira at the weekend, so they should return. United may focus on pressuring Alonso, the playmaker who so often releases Ronaldo for counterattacks.
Goalkeeper Iker Casillas is out with a broken hand so Diego Lopez will likely deputize.
Ferguson is likely to recall Rio Ferdinand and Michael Carrick and usually adopts a 4-5-1 formation in big matches away from home. England striker Wayne Rooney could therefore end up playing on the left wing.