Ferguson: In-form Ronaldo is still improving
Sir Alex Ferguson is relishing the chance of seeing Cristiano Ronaldo in top form again. The world player of the year did not get started until late September after a summer ankle operation and, although he hit the goal trail immediately, his form then dipped.
However, the 24-year-old has been back at his peak over the last month, scoring seven times, including two incredible 40-yard free-kicks to ease Manchester United's path towards another Champions League final.
And Ferguson is looking forward to seeing more heroics over the next three weeks as United close in on the Premier League title and European glory.
"I am not surprised at Cristiano's recent level of performance," said Ferguson. "He is a young man who is still improving because he is nowhere near his maturity."
The meeting with Barcelona in Rome on May 27 is already being billed as a shoot-out between the Portugal superstar and Lionel Messi for the right to be regarded as world number one.
It promises to be the most intriguing sub-plot to an eagerly-awaited contest, by which time, Ronaldo could easily be threatening the 30-goal mark once more.
"Cristiano is coming good just at the right time," said Ferguson. "He took a while to get into his rhythm after his operation.
"But he is a fantastic athlete, with great physique who never misses a game. We are lucky to have that combination, and courage as well.
"Obviously he won't get to 42 goals like he did last season but he is up to 25 now, which is still a fantastic tally for someone who is regarded as a wide player."
As Ronaldo has twice been sent off against Manchester City in recent years, he will have more reason that most to want to get the better of Mark Hughes' men on Sunday.
Carlos Tevez, Dimitar Berbatov and Paul Scholes are among those eager to make up for the disappointment of not starting Tuesday's win at Arsenal by helping United collect three of the seven points required to clinch a record-equalling 18th league title.
Having got so close to the prize, Ferguson is quietly optimistic his players will not be denied now.
"The players are smelling the big games now," said the United chief. "They like that big-game situation. They have proved they can handle it and they are hitting top form at the right time. It is ours to win in the sense of the points we are ahead of our opponents. With the form we are in, we have a good chance."
Meanwhile, Richard Dunne is wary of being penalised when he faces Ronaldo in the Manchester derby, claiming the winger ''makes the most'' of physical contact.
City captain Dunne, who will lead his side's attempts to keep the Portuguese star quiet, rates Ronaldo as one of the world's leading performers despite his reputation for going to ground too easily.
''At times he can be running so fast any nick sends him tumbling. He makes the most of the situation, I suppose.
''Some referees give free-kicks but some don't. He is the best player in the world and he plays the game to his advantage.
''Diving or not diving, he's impossible to mark when he's on form.''
Dunne added that so-called 'simulation' was on the increase in what could be seen as a criticism of Chelsea, whose Champions League semi-final against Barcelona was decided by an injury-time away goal at Stamford Bridge in midweek.
''There are a lot more divers these days. It has crept in more and more but you just think 'what goes around comes around'. You dive around and teams score against you in injury-time.''