Sir Alex Ferguson was full of levity and banter. He began by cracking a joke about whether he could catch Real Madrid's haul of nine European Cups, concluding that "you never know". The impression he left was of a man who was never happier than when he was going into the big occasion. At one point Manchester United's manager squinted to make out who was asking a question. His eyes finally rested on a familiar face from Manchester's press corps. "I thought I recognised that bloody voice," he lamented, with a telltale smile. "Like poison creeping over my body …"
A short while earlier, José Mourinho had occupied the same seat, wearing the look of a man who did not really want to be there. Mourinho's default setting was to treat questions like carefully laid traps. His body language was so stiff, so unbreakable, that one member of his audience asked whether he still actually enjoyed his profession. Michael Essien did his bit to lighten the mood and referred to him as "daddy" – but the man sitting immediately to his right allowed himself only a flicker of a smile. He said he was looking forward to being back in English football. In fact, he said it more than once. It was difficult not to deduce that what he also meant was that he was looking forward to being out of Madrid.
It was rare to see him so flat, when the occasion perhaps demanded a manager who would rev up the mood and project a positive impression. At one point Mourinho fixed his gaze on a row of English journalists and told them they should make sure they go out for the night with their Spanish counterparts. "Speak to the guys who write all the stories." He had just been asked whether it was true that he was operating under a sense of crisis, with a mutinous dressing room and a media that no longer had any place for him in their affections. "Are you worried about my crisis? I don't think you are. I'm not." Were his players behind him? "I am on the bench … they are on the pitch, so they are in front of me not behind me." A nice line, but it was not a yes.
Too much can be read into a press conference sometimes. It is what happens on the Bernabéu pitch that matters, not an airless room in the bowels of the stadium the night before. Yet Mourinho, lest it be forgotten, was also the manager who once said a match could be won in advance by some carefully dispensed press conference gems. He was also the man who once had so much confidence in his Chelsea team he was emboldened enough to name their starting XI before a Champions League match against Barcelona. The Mourinho of 2013 now makes pointed remarks about the frequency with which Madrid's newspapers reveal his team and tactics against his wishes. "I won't be telling you what my team is," he said, point blank.
The difference between the managers was stark but it was easy too to know what Ferguson meant when he talked about this being "the acid test" for his own team. For starters, Madrid have Cristiano Ronaldo, a player Mourinho described as belonging to "a higher footballing world". There is also the fact that Mourinho has a habit of getting the better of Ferguson on these occasions. In the 14 times their teams have met, Ferguson has won only three, and one of those was on penalties.
"I'm not bothered about that," he said. "I can't win them all." It is, nonetheless, a record that means Mourinho stands apart from any of Ferguson's other rivals. Analysing that kind of success, it can feel bizarre sometimes he is so unappreciated in his current city of work.
Ferguson promised that it would not be a game without goals and sounded like he meant what he said. "It won't be 0-0. Definitely not. I can assure you of that. There will be goals." United's manager has always preached the importance of scoring an away goal in two-leg ties. The trick here, perhaps, will be balancing that desire with the ploys of containment that visitors to the Bernabéu must implement.
"There could also be a surprise from both sides," Ferguson said of the tactics the sides may employ. "I'm trying to guess what they could do to blunt us and also what I can do to annoy them." Shinji Kagawa, he said, would be involved at some point but, beyond that, he was not willing to divulge whether he was preparing Phil Jones for a spoiling job on Ronaldo. Paul Scholes has been left in Manchester with a knee injury but, that apart, Ferguson has a fully fit squad. It was, he said, "a fantastic moment" for United to play this match.
More than anything, he needs solidity. Perhaps the most incredible thing is that if Ferguson opts for the back four that everyone assumes – from right to left, Rafael da Silva, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra – it will be only the third time David de Gea has played behind that quartet since joining the club the summer before last. In De Gea's 65 appearances there have been 27 different back-four combinations. It is no wonder sometimes that he does not appear entirely attuned to his defence.
Ferguson must also be aware that Vidic has played back-to-back games only once since returning from his knee operation. On the previous occasion, there was a gap of eight days between the two matches. This time it is three. Ferguson grumbled again about Sky moving United's last game against Everton to a Sunday 4pm kick-off but said he would "not put that as an excuse – they [the players] will find energy, find desire." Unlike Mourinho, Ferguson was smiling as he left the room.