Sir Bobby Charlton suggested recently that Sir Alex Ferguson is not sufficiently enamoured of José Mourinho to recommend him as his successor at Manchester United. "He doesn't like him too much" was Charlton's verdict in response to the general view that United would roll out the welcome mat for Mourinho as soon as he decides he has had enough at Real Madrid.

That may be so, though Ferguson is unlikely to comment on the matter while he is in charge at Old Trafford. But he obviously rates the manager who first came to prominence by knocking United out of the Champions League and has since joined the tiny band to have led different clubs to European Cup success as well as rivalling Ferguson's most notable achievement by winning a classic treble with Internazionale two years ago.

Given that Mourinho had already won a lesser treble (league, cup and Uefa Cup) with Porto in 2003, he is already out on his own among active managers and, though he may be experiencing minor domestic difficulties with Real, he still has an outstanding chance over the next few years of becoming the first manager in history to win the ultimate European prize with three different clubs.

Anyone would be impressed and Ferguson is no exception. The pairing of Real and United in the next round of the Champions League not only brings back memories of the battles of 2000 and 2003, when the two sides were the best in the world. It brings back Cristiano Ronaldo to Old Trafford and a manager whose record suggests United could soon be joining Chelsea and Manchester City on the European sidelines.

"Real will be favourites when the tie comes around," Ferguson says. "I also think José will be concentrating on the Champions League rather than the domestic league this season. I am convinced Borussia Dortmund are doing that too and you have to say that, despite tough draws, they are both great teams with a chance."

Real were ostensibly at their greatest in 2003 when their galáctico-era side won so comfortably at Old Trafford that the other Ronaldo was withdrawn to a standing ovation after a sensational hat-trick before United began their comeback. That was certainly a memorable European night, though Ferguson feels United gave away a few soft goals andmade Real look better than they were.

He was much more impressed by the Fernando Redondo-Steve McManaman inspired performance that blew United away three years earlier when they were defending their status as European champions. "They battered us that night and Redondo was fantastic," he says. Though the present consensus has it that Real are no longer the best team in Spain, never mind Europe, Ferguson pays the highest possible tribute to Mourinho when arguing that he has improved on what went before. In terms of Champions League success, after all, the galáctico period never quite paid its way.

"The last time we played Real they had a galaxy of fabulous players, from Luís Figo to Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos to Zinedine Zidane," he says. "That was great to watch, and a big occasion for the fans, but this time Real are more professional. José has got them far more organised and they have got Cristiano Ronaldo. I watched their game at the Bernabéu against City and in the first half they were absolutely brilliant. They could have been three or four goals up at half-time and some of the football they played was great."

United will have to draw inspiration from the fact that City ended up in front in that game with five minutes to play, only for Real to summon two late goals to win and give Mourinho an excuse for another knee slide. There are plenty of Premier League games to play before the Champions League resumes in February and Ferguson acknowledged that City are still in the hunt for the domestic title. "You can tell by the way they won at Newcastle that they are going to mount a challenge, that's what we are expecting and that's what we are good at."

First, Sunday afternoon brings the tricky challenge of Swansea away and another manager who has been catching everyone's attention.

"Very few great players make great managers," Ferguson says of Michael Laudrup. "He was certainly a great player and, while it might be a little early to say he is going to be a great manager, he has been doing everything right so far. You can only be impressed by the work he has done and the way his team play.

"He clearly does his homework too, because getting in Michu for £2m was a great piece of business. I'd never even heard of him, I'll admit, but he can play up front or he can drop deeper and he's got a good finish. The goals he scored against Arsenal showed a lot of composure and that's what you want to see in a striker. He's playing in his first season in a new country and he looks completely at home.

"Newcastle did something similar last season when they brought in Yohan Cabaye and Papiss Cissé. They settled in very quickly to do a good job and I'd never heard of those two either. I think I'm going to have to have a word with my scouting department."