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When giants collide

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Two of the biggest names in world football will collide mid-February in one of the most highly anticipated Champions League matchups in recent times. If you guessed Manchester United and Real Madrid, you’re only partly right.

In just under two months United manager Sir Alex Ferguson will shake hands with Madrid boss José Mourinho ahead of the first leg of what is easily the most compelling tie to have come out of Thursday’s Round of 16 draw in Nyon, Switzerland.

It’s not that United and Madrid have a particularly meaningful club-versus-club history; the two matches they contest will have nowhere near the histrionics as, say, the Barcelona-AC Milan series that will also be taking place early in the New Year.

Rather, what makes United-Madrid fascinating is the characters who currently define their respective clubs, and their managers in particular.

When Mourinho arrived in England to coach Chelsea in 2004, and not long after the bombastic press conference in which he referred to himself as the "Special One," he and Ferguson met for a bottle of wine in the Portuguese manager’s Stamford Bridge office. Chelsea had just beaten United 1-0, but despite the result, the two men hit it off instantly.

From the outside it looked an awkward relationship.

There was Mourinho, barely into his 40s, good-looking and clever with the press and already successful at his craft, having just won the Champions League with Porto. On the other side of the table was Ferguson, 62 and well on his way to becoming the greatest manager in the history of club football, who, when Mourinho was born, would have been banging in the goals on a frozen pitch at Muirton Park.

In the days after their tête-à-tête, Mourinho, never shy of a camera, gave reporters a glimpse at what the odd couple had discussed in his office.

"We laughed, we joked, we spoke, we drank," he said. "The wine we drank at Stamford Bridge was very bad, and he was complaining about it. He is a wonderful, great manager. I have a lot of respect for the big man. I call him ‘boss’ because he’s (other managers’) boss. He’s the top man, a really nice person and he deserves to be called the boss."

No doubt Ferguson, whose United side was in somewhat of a down cycle at the time, appreciated the admiration of someone so young and successful — someone he wouldn’t necessarily have assumed would not only treat their relationship with such respect, but also go out of his way to nurture a friendship with a more experienced colleague. It was likely a breath of fresh air for the Scot, who had by then gotten used to verbal spats with the likes of Arsene Wenger, Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish.

Just this week Ferguson, lecturing a group of Harvard business students, took the opportunity to express some of his own feelings regarding Mourinho, saying, "He is very intelligent; he has charisma."

He continued, "His players play for him, and he is a good-looking guy... He’s got a confidence about himself, saying ‘We’ll win this’ and ‘I’m the Special One.’ I could never come out and say we’re going to win this game. It’s maybe a wee bit of my Scottishness."

It’s widely believed that Ferguson has handpicked Mourinho to succeed him at United when he retires, which could be as soon as the end of next season. And Mourinho, ever ambitious, probably recognizes that following Ferguson — and trying to emulate even a semblance of his considerable success — would represent one of the toughest, rarest and potentially most gratifying challenges in club management.

But first there are at least two more occasions in which the two will go head to head — on Feb. 13 at the Bernabeu and March 5 at Old Trafford.

Ferguson, for one, is anticipating both the matches and the bottles of wine that will be opened after the final whistle.

"I’ve not got a great record against José and I need to put that right," he said, adding in a remark on the club’s official website that, "I’ll need to order some good wine!"

Twitter @jerradpeters

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