Roma coach Luciano Spalletti has described Manchester United as “the best side in the world” on the eve of the teams’ Champions League quarter-final rematch – but he insists his team is better equipped to deal with the threat posed by Sir Alex Ferguson’s side than they were at this stage last season.
Twelve months ago Roma held a slender 2-1 lead from the quarter-final first leg, only to be blown away by a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired United in the return match at Old Trafford. That 7-1 thrashing in the second leg will have weighed heavily on Spalletti’s thoughts as he prepared for tonght’s game.
“On paper, Manchester United are the best side in the world,” said the Roma coach. “They have quality everywhere, not only in attack but also in defence. They are good in choosing their players – they can pick the best ones because of their financial power, but they are also good at getting the best out of all of them.”
Spalletti added that they “can be more dangerous away than at home” but he stressed that his players were not there to make up the numbers.
“We are not mere spectators, we want to show we deserve to be here,” he said. Joking about the fine wine he presented Sir Alex Ferguson with last season, the coach said that he would “stop making gifts on and off the pitch” – and certainly Roma’s elimination of Real Madrid in the previous round tends to back up Spalletti’s conviction that “we are more mature”.
A key question for Roma will be how they cope without injured striker Francesco Totti, who is absent tonight with a thigh injury.
“We will miss his goals and the extraordinary things he can do on the pitch but I’m sure the team are ready to take greater responsibility as they’ve done in the past when the captain was missing,” said Spalletti, who also misses injured defender Juan and suspended midfielder Simone Perrotta. “Mirko Vucinic has helped us to win several games when he has been called on.”
Despite the absence of Totti, United boss Ferguson believes that Roma “are without question a better team this year”.
Much attention tonight will focus on Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored his 35th goal of a remarkable campaign in Saturday’s 4-0 success against Aston Villa.
“We’re absolutely delighted with his incredible improvement and goalscoring performances – it is a big advantage to us,” said Ferguson of the Portugal forward, who is the Champions League’s joint-leading scorer with six goals.
Paul Scholes has seen a number of great players during his 14 years as a Manchester United player but he believes Cristiano Ronaldo is the best he has played alongside.
“I think I’ve been quite lucky to have played with a lot of top, top players,” said Scholes. “Cristiano has to be at the top now, purely for what he has done this season. To score the amount of goals he has done from his position has been nothing short of amazing. It is not just that – it’s his making of chances as well and the threat he poses to other teams.”
United have won seven of their last eight games and Ferguson believes that his side have run into forma t the right stage of the season.
“Form is important and I think our form is very good,” said the Scot, who is missing the injured Nani but can call on the fit-again Edwin van der Sar.
“The only advantage we have is we have been here twice in the last year. The first time we came here, the first 20 minutes we found very difficult – it took time to adjust to the way they really pressed the game.”