Manchester United FC's Rio Ferdinand tells Champions Matchday how he is going to stop his friend Cristiano Ronaldo and of his experience against Real Madrid CF in 2002/03.
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Rio Ferdinand can't half shout. Even first thing on a Monday morning. The cameras are rolling in the interview suite at Carrington, Manchester United FC's impressively appointed training ground, and Ferdinand is in pleasingly reflective mode, but when voices come through the wall behind him, he quickly raises his own a good few decibels and calls for quiet.
It is a reminder of the other Rio: that this laid-back, thoughtful fellow with long limbs stretched out in front of him in his United training kit, happens also to be one of the most commanding defenders of his generation, and still the most expensive in British football history.
For more than a decade Ferdinand has been at the heart of the United team and on Wednesday he will feature in one of this season's starriest storylines, with United meeting Real Madrid CF in the UEFA Champions League round of 16. "It'll be a game that everyone will be tuning into because there's so much attached to it," he acknowledges – not least Cristiano Ronaldo’s reunion with his former team-mates.
Ferdinand admits that the friendly text messages between the two have dried up of late. "We've had a few texts, but when you get into a situation like this when you're coming up against a friend, all the texts and the conversations go to one side and you don't really speak until you actually get the game over and done with."
That said, he predicts a "fantastic reception" for Madrid's Portuguese icon at Old Trafford on 5 March. "The fans appreciated him when he was here and since he's been gone they sing his name. He came here a young boy and left a world-class player. He showed a lot of respect when he left and still does."
Ferdinand and Co know Ronaldo's game better than anybody but can that help them stop him? "You get as many people around the ball when he's got it as possible!" he says with a laugh. "But no, Madrid are that good a side you have to make sure you're set up right and that your team are in good positions all over the pitch to defend."
Along with Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, Ferdinand is a survivor of United’s last meeting with Madrid, when they succumbed to Vicente del Bosque's Merengues in the 2002/03 quarter-final. They lost 3-1 at Estadio Santiago Bernabéu before a 4-3 victory in a "crazy game" in Manchester featuring a famous hat-trick from another Ronaldo. "The away game – they really played us off the park if I'm honest," he remembers.
Ferdinand's abiding memory is of the trouble he had trying to stop the "brilliant" Raúl González. "Raúl was just difficult to get up against. He played off [the front] and asked you the question: 'Do you want to come in here and mark me? If you come in here someone else will run in the space that you leave or I'll just get it, turn and play it in the space that you leave.' In terms of making you think, he definitely was the most intelligent player I've played against."
Indeed, for Ferdinand, only Lionel Messi – a scorer in United's 2009 and 2011 UEFA Champions League final losses to FC Barcelona – has proved as tough an opponent. "Messi, in the two Champions League finals we played against him, was the main difference really."
Those are not happy memories for United and they have kindled a determination to return to Wembley, venue for this year's final as it was two seasons ago, to make amends. "It'd be nice to go back there and put what happened last time right. We went there and we didn't give a great account of ourselves."
This is an abridged version of an article in the latest issue of Champions Matchday, which is available in digital versions on Apple Newsstand or Zinio, as well as in print. You can also follow the magazine on Twitter @ChampionsMag.