Fergie focuses on current crop

United’s encounter with Beckham’s AC Milan has been built to such a

degree that Ferguson timed the first question about the former

England skipper at “three seconds” when he offered his opinions at

the obligatory pre-match press conference. Although he offered some

platitudes to his former player and has healed the rift that caused

them to part in 2003, Ferguson is clearly happier talking about

others, in particular Rooney, whose 23 goals this season are

largely responsible for United being just a point adrift of Chelsea

in this season’s Premier League title race. “Manchester United

builds up heroes very quickly,” said Ferguson. “We are peculiar

because the players, like Beckham, who come through the ranks are

always viewed as better than those you buy. “But Rooney is also

regarded as that kind of player. Although he came from Everton, the

fans will always look at him as one of the players who has grown up

with us. “He has been fantastic this season and, without doubt, his

form this season has brought him to the high point of his career.

“World-class is a misused term, but with Rooney, you have to say he

is getting to the point where he is now one of the best players in

the world.” The question that ultimately led to that response was

which club, Milan or United, had suffered the most from losing Kaka

and Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid after the Spanish giants’

mega-swoop last summer. It was a question Ferguson felt was

impossible to answer. Yet he did confirm Ronaldo, in his opinion,

is the best player in the world at present. “Marvellous,” was his

actual description. That statement in itself told a story about

Ferguson’s opinions about Beckham. While there could never be any

criticism about the player’s industry, or his desire to succeed at

Old Trafford, his manager felt the image surrounding him had grown

out of control. Ferguson was uncomfortable feeding it and that

stance persists to this day given his reaction to the prospect of

facing Beckham for the first time tomorrow night. “David left seven

years ago,” he stated. “You move on in life. That is what happens.

“This is a different team and different players. “David has

experience. He has over 100 caps for England and has played for

Milan, Real Madrid and Manchester United. “It is the same

experience as the likes of Alessandro Nesta, Filippo Inzaghi and

Clarence Seedorf. They all have that experience that Milan bring

and I hope he is not celebrating at the end.” And, for Beckham,

that essentially was it. Ferguson finds it far easier concentrating

on one of his more favourite themes, what went wrong when the two

sides last met three years ago. On that occasion United led from

the home leg, only to see their hopes of booking a final meeting

with Liverpool dashed by a rampant Milan outfit that scored three

times without reply to consign the Red Devils to their fourth

straight defeat at the hands of the Italian giants. “In the last

game, the physical part was the real reason for our performance,”

said Ferguson. “We had to play against Everton on the Saturday

while Milan rested a lot of players and they were fresh. “We are

fresh this time and that can make a difference.” There is more to

it than that though. Rio Ferdinand’s return from domestic

suspension provides extra quality. But it was maturity Ferguson

felt was missing. What he would now acknowledge Beckham – plus

Nesta, Inzaghi and Seedorf – provides for Milan, others, like

Darren Fletcher, do for his own side. “Over the last two years

there is a maturity about us away from home,” he said. “There is a

distinct change from when we were here last.” And that, really,

should be the difference, once you consider United have started to

click into top gear again. “The second half of the season tends to

brighten up the team. They accept there is a big challenge,” said

Ferguson. “And these lads are big game players.”