Sir Alex Ferguson believes that Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo is a much better player now than when he left Manchester United to join the Spanish giants for £80 million in 2009.
Ferguson, speaking to reporters at the Bernabeu ahead of Wednesday's Champions League tie between Ronaldo's current and former teams, said that his protege had improved during his time in Spain.
"Ronaldo is absolutely a better player now, because of his maturity," Ferguson said. "He is at the peak of his career now, and for the next three years. He was still a young man when he left me. He has flourished in Madrid. He and [Lionel] Messi are now the best players in the world. I knew he would improve, but I did not expect him to score the goals he has scored. It is phenomenal."
Ronaldo's hat-trick in Madrid's 4-1 win over Sevilla last weekend has brought his tally to 182 goals in 179 games for Los Merengues, upping his rate from the comparatively pedestrian 118 goals in 292 games at Manchester United.
"Ronaldo's goals tell you a lot," Ferguson said. "He has fitness, speed, he is never injured, plays every week... that is unique in the modern day game. He never asks for a rest, wants to play all the time, these are exceptional qualities."
Asked whether current United leading scorer Robin Van Persie was reaching the level of Ronaldo and Messi with his performances this season, Ferguson accepted the possibility.
"Van Persie is now approaching that level," he said. "From the moment he came to us he has been sensational, a breath of fresh air. Twenty-three goals tell you everything. We must be happy with his performance."
The veteran Scot said he did not think Madrid's poor La Liga form - where they have fallen 16 points behind Barcelona - was an accurate barometer of their current state and said his team would have to be careful not to get caught on the break against Ronaldo and company.
"Real got off to a shaky start, and Barca came out of the traps flying," Ferguson said. "They have their best record ever. Unbelievable. [But] I watched their game ten days ago against Barca and there was not a lot in it. Barca, as you expect, had more possession, but Madrid contained them.
"They are one of the best counter attacking teams in Europe. We must be aware of that, but we must play our own game. Our intention is always to win and to score, which can create chaos in the game, but we need to balance that with responsibility and make sure we do not leave the door open at the back."
Fergie was less happy to accept that Mourinho might have the Indian sign over him, after the Special One had often edged their battles during his time in England, saying the chance to face Mourinho again at this level is one he is looking forward to.
"It is the game everyone has been waiting for," he said. "It is a fantastic challenge for myself. Two teams and two clubs who embrace the best parts of football. I am looking forward to it. It will not be a 0-0, there will be goals, I assure you. It is unfortunate for the teams to meet this early. The final in Wembley would have been better and a semi-final would have a different edge. Tomorrow is so important to both clubs. We cannot think of failing."
Ferguson, who said there no late injury concerns for his side, might just have a trick up his sleeve to get one over on Mourinho.
"There could be a surprise from both sides," he said. "I am trying to guess what they could do to blunt us. And what I can do to annoy him.
"Our team is capable of winning the Champions League. There is a great spirit about them. People keep saying we're not as good as past United teams but then sometimes we get foggy impressions about the past. I do so myself at times.
"But the reality is this team doesn't know when it is beaten, which is a great quality. I have no doubt in my mind the acid test is tomorrow."