Alex Ferguson hails Cristiano Ronaldo

CRISTIANO Ronaldo’s Real Madrid performances have come as something of a surprise to ex-manager Sir Alex Ferguson who described his form as “phenomenal” on the eve of Manchester United’s Champions League tie at Real Madrid.

Portugal forward Ronaldo, sold by United for a world record fee of £80 million in 2009, faces his old club for the first time in this evening’s last-16 first-leg tie.

“Ronaldo is a better player than when he left us because of his maturity,” Ferguson told a news conference at Real’s Bernabeu stadium yesterday.

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“He’s at the peak of his career now and the next three years will be the same. I never thought he’d ever get the amount of goals he’s scored. To score the goals he has scored is phenomenal.”

Ronaldo, 28, has been in scintillating form since the turn of the year and warmed up for the United game with a hat-trick in a 4-1 destruction of Sevilla on Saturday, the 17th treble of his La Liga career.

United are riding high with a 12-point lead at the top of the Barclays Premier League, while Jose Mourinho’s Real have all but given up on retaining their La Liga title after some erratic performances.

“I think it’s a good time to be playing Real,” said Ferguson. “We’ve got a fantastic lead in the league and we have everyone fit.

“When you come to this part of the season you usually have one or two or three players injured. We don’t have that, which is a bonus.”

Ferguson, though, has expressed his disappointment that tonight’s showdown had not been reserved for the final at Wembley in May. The match has been described by Mourinho as one “the whole world wants to see” and Ferguson added: “Jose summed it up perfectly. It is the game everyone is waiting for. It is a fantastic match between two clubs who embrace the best part of football. They have won the trophy nine times, which is beyond me. It is unfortunate that we are meeting as early as this in the competition. I wish it had been at Wembley.”

United have won the European Cup three times but they lost to Real’s arch rivals Barcelona in the finals in 2009 and 2011.

Ferguson said he was convinced his side could go one better this season. He said: “There’s a great spirit about them. The reality is this team doesn’t know when it’s beaten, which is a great quality.”

Ferguson said Japan midfielder Shinji Kagawa would feature at some point this evening.

But Ferguson has other superstars at his disposal, chief among which is Wayne Rooney, who was depicted as a “hooligan” in the Spanish press yesterday. Sports daily Marca also described Rooney as “a freckled demon” who is “built like a barrel packed with gunpowder” and on his way to “blow up the Bernabeu”.

“He is a mature player now,” said Ferguson of Rooney. “He is 27. When players mature little bits of their games change. His goalscoring has been very consistent. He used to score in snatches. Now there is a far more consistent nature to his goals.”

Asked about yesterday’s unflattering reports in the Spanish press, Ferguson said: “Rooney can’t read Spanish so we will be all right.”

With Madrid trailing Barcelona by 16 points in La Liga, the pressure is on Mourinho to deliver success in Europe. Widespread opinion in Spain suggests his job depends on it.

“Are you worried with my crisis? I am not,” Mourinho said.

Mourinho, who has lost just two of his 14 meetings with Ferguson down the years, has long been viewed as the favourite to succeed the Scot at Old Trafford. But the Madrid manager doesn’t see it that way.

“I don’t believe so,” joked Mourinho. “I think we have to end our career at the same time – him at 90 and me at 70.”

“I will go back to England after Real Madrid,” Mourinho added. “We will see [when that is]. I love everything [about England]. England will be my next step.”