"He's not fit. He won't be fit for tomorrow," Sir Alex Ferguson bluntly stressed. 'He' is Phil Jones, Manchester United's midfield stop-gap tasked with stymieing Cristiano Ronaldo in the Bernabéu three weeks ago. The caveat with approaching United's second leg with Real Madrid under the assumption Jones will not feature is he is still not ruled out.
Ferguson has form for mischief-making. Time and again he will confirm a player is "out" for a game only for said player to appear on the team sheet, to no one's surprise. Ahead of the quarter-final second leg with Bayern Munich three years ago, he was adamant Wayne Rooney would not play yet there he was, in the tunnel, (almost) ready to start as he nursed an ankle injury.
The benefit Ferguson has is, although under Uefa media protocol clubs must allow photographers 20 minutes to get some snapshots while they train, once they have cleared off United are as hidden outdoors as they are indoors. Unlike City just down the road, their Carrington training complex resembles a James Bond fortress, and Jones could easily have emerged from the shadows like Red Grant on Tuesday.
Jones' development has stalled at United. He has played centre-back, right-back, centre midfield and - most risibly - as an attacking midfielder at Blackburn last season. Rash and occasionally indisciplined, the tinkering he has experienced is perhaps responsible for exacerbating those gurning expressions of his. Despite these negatives, he is a key player for Ferguson due to his selflessness and has arguably enjoyed his best football in a United shirt as a midfielder. His brief partnership with Michael Carrick in December 2011 was the catalyst for the number 16's superb and sustained from for the Premier League leaders.
But assuming he is not fit, Ferguson has a familiar quandary. He has spent roughly £199.85m since he last bought a midfielder (Anderson) in 2007 and that negligence has been instrumental in United's two dismal Champions League final displays against Barcelona in 2009 and 2011. The Premier League's own regression - timed to mirror that of United's midfield since 2009 - has aided United's title assaults in the post-Ronaldo era, but Europe could bring the problems back to light.
Ferguson's options to partner Carrick are Tom Cleverley, Anderson and Ryan Giggs, with Paul Scholes injured. Giggs was rested against Norwich at the weekend to save him for tonight.
"Ryan will be involved on Tuesday. We couldn’t miss that moment [1,000 senior games] for the lad. He deserves it,” Ferguson said. The Scot has been accused of becoming sentimental in his OAP years but this was a rare admission. Giggs has been excellent the last two-and-a-half-months but has excelled against the Premier League's mid-to-bottom-half teams. Ferguson has managed him brilliantly since Christmas, but his ill-advised decisions to start him versus Tottenham and Norwich were instrumental in United losing both fixtures
The unreliable Anderson lasted the full 90 minutes in the 4-0 win versus Norwich on Saturday, which guarantees him a berth on the bench tonight, and Cleverley, usually the man to complement Carrick, was dropped for Jones in Madrid. Xabi Alonso will relish the extra space without the marauding Jones... If he's unfit.