• 'We could have played different XI in Madrid and got a result'
• Manager says United must not relax against Reading
Sir Alex Ferguson believes the 1999 treble-winning squad was not nearly as strong as his current Manchester United group, and said he could have played a different XI at Real Madrid on Wednesday and achieved the same result.
United drew the opening leg of the Champions League last-16 tie 1-1. With Reading on Monday at Old Trafford in the fifth round of the FA Cup, and a 12-point lead in the Premier League, United's tilt at winning a second treble is on course.
Asked about similarities between the 1998-99 campaign and the current one, Ferguson said: "We lost to Middlesbrough in December and we never lost again. It was a tough FA Cup run that season, really tough. We were up against Premier League teams in every round. It's nice to look back at these things and how it was done with the squad of players I had, which is not nearly as strong as the one I have now."
Ferguson believes the current group has more depth than the squad in 1999. "Yes, numbers wise," he said. "When we went to the final, [Roy] Keane and [Paul] Scholes were suspended, but Henning Berg was the only injury and I had to pull in Jonathan Greening, who had only played once or twice, and he actually got a winner's medal for sitting on the bench. That gives you an idea of the respective strength of the squads.
"I could have played a completely different team on Wednesday and I think we still would have got a result. It's not just the four strikers I could change, you could change the entire team now. There were good internationals who weren't even involved on Wednesday. It will be a different team when Madrid come here. One, two or three who didn't play on Wednesday could play in the second leg. As I said the other day, I've got all these international players, so why shouldn't I trust them?
"I feel there's a good spirit. That's obvious. When you're successful you have to look at the overall squad – I know there were a lot of players disappointed not playing on Wednesday, I'd be disappointed if they weren't disappointed, but the ones who weren't playing were right behind the ones who were playing and that's good. The way I'm looking at is to pick a team to win the next match and it will be a different team against Reading and again against QPR, Norwich and then Madrid."
Yet despite his side's form Ferguson is not focusing on the treble. "I just look at the next match, thinking about winning the next match," he said. The manager is also keen that Reading should be prevented from causing an upset on Monday, with Brian McDermott's side proving recently that they can turn matches late on. In recent games against West Bromwich Albion, Newcastle United, Chelsea and Sunderland, Reading have come from behind to avoid defeat. Ferguson said: "The reality is don't get carried away by it, particularly in the FA Cup, anything can happen. You don't want to be a shock, that's for sure. So Monday, in many people's eyes, it's Reading: 'Yeah, we've just been to Madrid, it was a great night and Monday will take care of itself.' Monday can't take of itself. We have to take care of it, we have to have performance which respects our opponents and the fact that the FA Cup can produce shocks. We've suffered them ourselves and we don't want another one on Monday night."
Against Madrid, Phil Jones and Danny Welbeck shone and Ferguson is content at how they and his other younger players are maturing. "You have to have certain qualities to be a big success now and I think Jones and Welbeck have great qualities," he said. "Rafa [da Silva] proved himself in the second half. He had a horrendous first half, he was impetuous, tried to win the war right away, diving in at players. But he settled down in the second half with absolutely no problems and that's a measure of the success he's had this season. He's been terrific this season. That maturity showed itself in the second half. His game calmed down and he had absolutely no problems at all."