Ferguson faces huge task in Europe
Sir Alex Ferguson bristled with defiance in the steamy heat of Rome's Stadio Olimpico after Manchester United's Champions League crown had been stripped away unceremoniously by Barcelona on the banks of the Tiber.
Ferguson was respectfully asked by an inquisitor to reaffirm his hunger to return the giant trophy to Old Trafford. The response, which almost came coated in caustic soda, closed the debate as swiftly as it began.
Manchester United embark on the journey to reclaim the Champions League crown against Besiktas in Turkey on Tuesday - and if Ferguson pulls off the feat it will sit easily alongside his greatest achievements.
Whisper it quietly, but even reaching this season's final might be regarded as a victory of sorts for the old master given the change in European football's landscape since 10 minutes of United domination were followed by 80 minutes of ball chasing in Rome.
Where there is Wayne Rooney there is always hope, but if United can be outmanouevred technically and tactically so completely by Barcelona with the weapon of Cristiano Ronaldo at their disposal, do they have a chance without him?
United's outstanding display at Spurs on Saturday erased any suggestions that they may be reduced to the margins of the Premier League title race - but winning at White Hart Lane and securing victory over two legs at the sharp end of the Champions League are very different tasks.
Ferguson and his players reflect on last season's defeat by Barcelona
Pep Guardiola's artists will start as favourites to retain their crown, while the arrival of a "Who's Who" of world football at Real Madrid means much of the smart money is already on an all-Spanish Champions League final at the Bernabeu on 22 May.
Real, for all their attacking riches, are still a guarantee to concede goals and this is where their claim to the trophy they once called their own may falter.
Ronaldo's loss is a grievous blow to United's hopes, especially as he can count Kaka, Xabi Alonso, Karim Benzema and Raul Albiol among his new colleagues as part of president Florentino Perez's "scorched earth" transfer policy to recruit a new era of Galacticos.
Ferguson, you can be sure, will not be daunted by this renewal and nor should he be - in fact the prospect of a meeting with "that mob" at Real Madrid and his former protege later in the Champions League will get the juices flowing inside Old Trafford.
United, winners and runners-up in the last two seasons, will lead the Premier League's assault - along with Scottish champions Rangers - to win Europe's elite tournament.
Chelsea will be convinced the appointment of a two-time past winner as coach in Carlo Ancelotti can change their fortunes in a competition they almost appear doomed not to win.
Various forces have raged against Chelsea in the past, from Claudio Ranieri's tinkering in the 2004 semi-final against Monaco, Luis Garcia's "ghost goal" at the same stage against Liverpool a year later and John Terry's slip in the Moscow rain in the 2008 final penalty shoot-out when the Champions League was theirs for the taking.
Last year it was a bald Norwegian psychologist by the name of Tom Henning Ovrebo who was the villain in the eyes of those gathered on Stamford Bridge's grassy knoll after failing to make all the big calls for Chelsea in the semi-final against Barcelona.
Liverpool will fancy their chances, simply because they always do. Manager Rafael Benitez has not yet been able to master the Premier League, but in Europe he is the shrewdest of operators - especially at the knockout stage - and he always starts the Champions League convinced his team are potential winners.
Such is Liverpool's bulletproof confidence in Europe that they almost had the audacity, even without injured Steven Gerrard, to retrieve a 3-1 deficit from Anfield when they travelled to Chelsea in last season's quarter-final.
Arsenal, as they tend to be, will be the outsiders of the English pack - but a final in 2006, a quarter-final in 2008 and a semi-final last year will hardly dent Arsene Wenger's confidence.
Ferguson still regards his two Champions League wins as a poor return on the quality he has had at his disposal, and there is little doubt Ronaldo's move has robbed United of an extra dimension that served them well in Europe.
This deal had to be done - the timing, the fee and the player's disaffected mood dictated it - but make no mistake Ferguson would rather have had Ronaldo than Real's £80m.
And this is one of the key areas where I feel United will come up short in the Champions League this season. Ronaldo was a proven match-winner and players like Dimitar Berbatov have yet to convince as an inspiration on the big occasion.
Rooney's importance cannot be over-estimated. He is the one X-Factor that has the capacity to reduce all predictions (including this one) to rubble and he will not shrink from the challenge of picking up Ronaldo's mantle.
United also have concerns about a lack of a creative central midfield player. How long can the enduring and wonderful talents of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes be seriously expected to shape games in closing stages of the Champions League?
United should negotiate the group phase in relative comfort, although the draw provided an unwelcome punch on the nose when they drew Bundesliga champions Wolfsburg, easily the most dangerous fourth seed in the draw.
Besiktas and CSKA Moscow, who have appointed former Spurs and Real Madrid boss Juande Ramos as coach, may prove more arduous in terms of travel than football. The true tests for United will come once the two-legged affairs kick in.
Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti (left) has tasted Champions League glory in the past
Chelsea, as ever, come well-equipped to tackle the Champions League course and in Ancelotti have a coach who knows who to navigate it. They will not be affected by a potential transfer ban in January because it is not the time Chelsea invest in players for the European campaign.
Of course, adversity will be a driving force and none of us who were present at Stamford Bridge last May to see Andres Iniesta's goal prove the catalyst for heartbreak and Didier Drogba-inspired chaos will ever forget it.
Chelsea have the strength of squad to master most challenges. They were seconds away from sending Barcelona out and the bitter memories will act as inspiration once more.
Of course, as with others, keeping key men fit is pivotal. Ancelotti will hope no mishap befalls John Terry, Frank Lampard and the currently awe-inspiring Drogba. Chelsea have real chances of arriving in at least the last four once more.
Porto will provide testing opposition at Stamford Bridge, but the loss of Lucho Gonzalez, Aly Cissokho and Lisandro Lopez has taken away real quality. Atletico Madrid are unpredictable with Sergio Aguero a world-class talent in tandem with Diego Forlan, but they should progress without serious problems.
Liverpool will share Chelsea's confidence - and it is accepted that once Benitez has placed his side in the last 16 they are one of the teams no-one wishes to draw, especially with the prospect of a potentially defining visit to Anfield.
Benitez will lean heavily on Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, and the worry for Liverpool is that while their first-choice 11 can confront any challenge in the competition without fear, they have a very long tail to their squad.
Their group has a tricky appearance, but hardly offers an insurmountable challenge. The Hungarians of Debreceni are unknowns, while no trip to Florence to face Fiorentina is easy. Lyon may not be the force they were under those coaches of repute Jacques Santini, Paul Le Guen and Gerard Houllier and they have lost Benzema and Juninho, but Claude Puel has invested heavily this summer.
Ex-Porto striker Lopez and Bafetimbi Gomis will provide the firepower, but Liverpool should prevail.
Arsenal cannot be regarded as serious contenders to win the Champions League, especially after the defensive vulnerability that resurfaced ominously at Manchester United and Manchester City, but Wenger will have been happy with their draw.
Standard Liege are tough opposition on their own ground, but Arsenal will be pleased that they start the campaign on Wednesday without outstanding young captain Steven Defour, who could be out for three months with a fractured foot.
AZ Alkmaar must be treated with the respect afforded to any winners of the Dutch title, but with the departure of the master coach Louis Van Gaal they may pose less of a threat. And while Olympiacos will also be another hazarous assignment on their own turf, Arsenal can be backed to reach the knockout stage once more.
Rangers were never going to get an easy draw but they could have done a lot worse, and the wise management and experience of Walter Smith will harbour genuine hopes of finding a way out of a group that pits them alongside Sevilla, VfB Stuttgart and the splendidly-named Romanians Unirea Urziceni.
In reality, a place in the last 16 must be the extent of their ambitions - not so with England's four Premier League contenders.
For Ferguson and Manchester United, it offers the biggest stage on which to prove there really is life without Cristiano Ronaldo. And the doubters wrong.