• 'They signed Fernando Torres to satisfy that obsession'
• Wayne Rooney 'will definitely be fresher' due to domestic ban
The mood was light, full of levity and humour. Sir Alex Ferguson mixed up his years at one stage and joked that age was catching up with him. He wanted to know why Rio Ferdinand, sitting to his right, did not like the grey puffa jacket the Manchester United manager wore for training and, when it became serious and the talk turned to winning European Cups, this was a man who seemed completely comfortable in his own skin.
Ferguson has long argued that United should have lifted that 29-inch, 18lb piece of silver more frequently. He will reel off the achievements of the other serial winners – Real Madrid with nine, Milan on seven, Ajax and Bayern Munich with four each (Liverpool, on five, seldom get a name-check) – and grimace a little as he reflects on United's inability to win it more than three times.
Yet it is still three more than Chelsea and, sitting in the Europa Suite at Old Trafford with so many photographic memories of feted European nights adorning the walls, there was none of desperation that had a near-frantic Roman Abramovich almost writhing out of his seat during the first leg of this quarter-final in London last Wednesday.
Ferguson spoke of winning the European Cup having become "an obsession" for Chelsea and he knows from personal experience the different frustrations that are involved, the way it can overtake your life, make you feel strangely unfulfilled. "I had that obsession myself for a long time," he said. "Losing the semi-final against Borussia Dortmund [in 1997], I thought we were never going to do it."
He remembered, with a little exaggeration, it was "devastating because we missed 15 one-on-ones that night". Then his mind turned to the semi-final against Bayer Leverkusen in 2002 and, still today, his voice was laced with unmistakable sadness. "That was an absolute ..." he said, trailing off. "I still don't know how we didn't get to that final."
By then, of course, he had already experienced what it is like to hoist the trophy he cherishes above all to the skies, courtesy of that epic night at the Camp Nou in 1999 – football, bloody hell, and all that. "The greatest feeling of all time," Ferguson reminisced. "And it took the monkey off my back."
It is still there for Abramovich, weighing him down like a breeze block after almost eight years as Chelsea's owner. "That is certainly why they signed Fernando Torres in January," Ferguson said. "There is no question of that in my mind. Abramovich has very much nailed his colours to the mast in that respect; I've felt that for quite a while with him. But to have an obsession with winning the European Cup can stretch you a wee bit. It's a fantastic competition but, at the end of the day, it is also a very difficult competition to win. All the best teams are there. You see the form of Barcelona at the moment – it's fantastic."
This was the point at which Ferguson asked his audience for the dates of the semi-finals. "If they are on different days I'll be glad about that," he said. "It looks like it is going to be Barcelona and Real Madrid, can you imagine what that is going to be like?"
It didn't seem to be noticed that he was already talking as though United's involvement in the last four was circled in his diary. Ferguson is entitled to be confident. The 1-0 victory at Stamford Bridge last week was a performance of control and purpose and, on their own ground, there is a sense of fearlessness to his side.
United have dropped only two points at home in the Premier League all season. They have gone over a year without losing at Old Trafford and, as was the case in 1999, they have a virtually injury-free squad, even though Rafael da Silva will need a fitness test in the morning.
There is also a sense at Old Trafford that Wayne Rooney's two-match ban from domestic competitions may work to United's advantage for this tie. "He will definitely be fresher after missing the game [against Fulham] on Saturday," Ferguson said. "That has given him six days' good preparation and that could make a difference."
Then there is the added insurance a fit-again Ferdinand brings to the defence, even if Chris Smalling has deputised ably in his absence. In previous years Torres has been depicted as a player who could have Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic waking in a cold sweat; here, there were a couple of questions about the £50m striker and then the conversation moved on without so much as a backward glance.
After two months out with injury, Ferdinand's performance against Torres and Didier Drogba last Wednesday was considered by Ferguson to be among the best of his nine years as a United player. The manager also eulogised Antonio Valencia and it speaks volumes that Nani, the team's most profitable source of penetration this season, cannot be regarded as a mandatory pick.
The issue for Ferguson is whether to opt for conservatism with an extra man in midfield, or be bold and continue with Javier Hernández alongside Rooney in attack. United, as Ferguson said, "always have to win" so it may well be the same team that played at Stamford Bridge, Rafael's fitness permitting.
The question for United is whether this side has authentic credentials to emulate the 1999 treble-winners. For Chelsea, it is the last chance of a trophy – a feeling, as Ferguson said, of "all or nothing". He narrowed his eyes at that point. "It's all or nothing for us as well, by the way," he said, fixing his audience with one of his impenetrable stares. "Make no mistake about that. You are all running away with sympathy for Chelsea at the moment. But we need to win, too. It doesn't make Chelsea any more desperate to win this match than Manchester United, believe me."