Sir Alex Ferguson was sitting in precisely the same place where, going back a few years now, Cristiano Ronaldo wore dark sunglasses during one press conference with a diamond-encrusted baseball cap strategically pulled low to conceal an ugly gash above his right eye. Ronaldo had taken a whack from a flailing elbow during a Champions League tie against Roma. "It's not a problem," he told his audience. "In four or five days I will be beautiful again."

Ronaldo could get away with that kind of vanity because what he produced on the pitch went in tandem with the way he used to puff out that Olympic swimmer's torso and nod rhythmically to his own brilliance. A number of Manchester United players, experienced old heads such as Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, had ventured before the 1-1 draw at the Bernabéu three weeks ago that the emotions of the night might get to him. As it was, he treated the occasion like a man intent on showing the football world how much he has improved in Real Madrid's colours. "My biggest concern is if he turns up," Ferguson now says.

Perhaps this is why Ferguson made the unusual admission that he could not see his team keeping a clean sheet and shutting out Real in the way they had done Barcelona in the 2008 semi-finals. On that occasion Carlos Queiroz, then Ferguson's No2, had planned United's defensive tactics so meticulously that place mats were put on the training pitch showing exactly where he wanted the players to the nearest yard. This time, they will almost certainly need another parsimonious performance in defence. Yet Ferguson, for all his outward confidence, was not emboldened enough to say Real, in supreme form, could be closed out when they have scored in every single one of their 15 foreign excursions under José Mourinho. "I think there will be goals and I think both teams will score," he said.

The secret for United will be finding the correct balance between adventure and trying to negate Madrid's considerable threat on the counterattack. Nobody could accuse Ferguson of conservatism after the first leg but there were tactical nuances behind playing such a bold lineup. Wayne Rooney's deployment on the right meant he could involve himself in what was at times a three-on-one operation on Ronaldo. Danny Welbeck was under instructions to chase back on the other side and, at all times, there was a clear instruction that they should have at least six players behind the ball. Real, as Ferguson has said several times now, will pick you off otherwise – "one of the best counterattacking teams in Europe".

Ferguson's impression of Mourinho's team was reaffirmed when he flew to Barcelona last week and watched them dismantle La Liga's leaders with their pace and penetration on the break. "They were absolutely stunning," he said of that 3-1 victory. "We have to cope with that but we have to show our own attacking threat also."

More than anything, one suspects United need to do something that was beyond them in the first leg. That towering leap and expertly despatched header gave Ronaldo his seventh goal in this season's competition. He has had 31 attempts on target, another 15 off range. He has also scored 16 times in his past 14 Champions League appearances and, in total, has 185 in 183 for Real in all competitions. "What do you expect if you play against him?" Ferguson asked. "You expect problems. You try to prepare for it as best you can but it won't be easy because he does it every week."

United's manager talked of Rafael da Silva benefiting from having already faced him once, which meant the young Brazilian should not be as raw as he had looked in the first half in the Bernabéu.

Ferguson has since described that 45-minute display from his right-back as "horrendous" and "impetuous" but now he spoke at length about trusting his players to cope. "I don't think it is one we should fear. If we go out fearing the damage Cristiano can do us then we will forget what we can do. We [the management] must trust them and they must trust each other; that is why we have continuous success."

Yet this is not as straightforward as pinning Da Silva to Real's best player and hoping that he has the game of his life. Phil Jones's ankle injury deprives United of a holding midfielder who can deny Ronaldo space and these are the moments when Darren Fletcher's absence is really felt. Tom Cleverley could fill the void or it may go to Ryan Giggs on the night of his 1,000th appearance, but neither have the same defensive instincts, which brings Anderson into the equation. Ronaldo, moreover, has the licence to roam. In the first leg he started on the left, drifted into the centre and then scored his goal in direct opposition to Evra, United's left-back. Whichever way you look at it, it is a formidable challenge for Ferguson's men.

They can be encouraged, though, by the lesson of history. Real have gone through only once in the nine occasions they have drawn at home in the first leg and been eliminated on all four occasions it has started 1-1. United's record is nine wins out of 12, or three from three with this score.

Looking further ahead, there is also the fact that in three of the four times these famous old clubs have met in Europe's premier competition, the winner has gone on to lift the trophy.

"As a European night I don't think you get any bigger than this one," the United manager said. "It is set up to be a potentially marvellous game and I don't think it will be a disappointment either."