The question comes and Raphael Varane looks bemused, like he’s just been asked to name all 50 US states, in alphabetical order, in less than a minute. “Fear?” the Manchester United defender says, fixing his inquisitor with a stare that could have passed for affronted before he smiles, albeit a little incredulously. “No. No way … Why?”
But, when you have four Champions League titles and a World Cup winners’ medal to your name, and performed so adroitly in a 2-1 victory over the Premier League champions only four months earlier, confidence in your own ability is understandable. “I like to face big challenges, especially when something looks impossible,” Varane says. “It’s when I feel ‘okay’ – that expectation to do something that looks impossible.”
“When the challenge is big, I feel more motivation and, in that game, as a team we defended very well. City is the team that creates the most chances in a game but our first half was very good.”
“So we have to do this performance [again] to win the Cup and obviously if we have one chance we have to score. We have to be efficient. We have to face the challenge and find a way to win.”
‘I learned a lot from a club like Madrid’
It helps, too, that Varane has experience, prior to joining United two years ago, of confronting a winning Pep Guardiola machine – and throwing a spanner in the works. Guardiola’s Barcelona had won three successive Spanish titles and two Champions Leagues when Varane pitched up at Real Madrid in 2011 and helped the club to unseat their bitter Catalan rivals at the La Liga summit in his first season.
He would go on to win another two league titles and four European Cups with Real, in addition to beating Barcelona in the 2014 Copa del Rey final, and ensure there was no Barca monopoly on things.
United are not as well armed as Real were – at least not yet – and Guardiola’s City will take some shifting at the top but if a Lionel Messi inspired Barcelona can be dislodged then it stands to reason that anyone can. “I learned a lot from a club like Madrid and I try to transmit that here,” Varane, now 30, said. “It was my first step at the top level. I learned how to fight, and developed that winning mentality.”
‘The Premier League is special’
“We grew as a team and as a club during that period. We want to develop and be on the top at Manchester United as well. When you start winning you can change the mentality and are more prepared to win more, and the biggest trophies.”
“We have to be positive, we’re in a good way, but the most important thing is to believe. I think the similarities [between the challenges] are Pep and the style of play from City but I don’t think it’s the same thing [exactly].”
In what sense? “First of all it’s the league,” he adds. “It was much more under our control in La Liga with Madrid. The Premier League is special. The level is very high and I think the physicality and intensity of the games are different. Here you can win and lose against any team.”
While there is pressure on United to dent City’s treble bid, and preserve the club’s position as the only English club to win the top flight title, FA Cup and Champions League in a single season, Varane shares his manager Erik ten Hag’s view that the focus has to be about building their own legacy.
“I think we are more focused on the challenge we face – and not to stop the challenge from another team,” the Frenchman said. “We want to win and that’s the only objective we have. We don’t try to stop them - but we want to win for the club.”
April 13 was a costly night for Ten Hag and United. Not only did United throw away a 2-0 lead against Sevilla in the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final to draw 2-2 and go on to crash out of the competition, they lost Lisandro Martinez and Varane, their defensive linchpins, to injury.
A fractured metatarsal ended Martinez’s season there and then but there were serious fears initially that an ankle injury might also rob United of Varane for the remainder of the campaign.
His return, then, a month later was met with palpable relief and Ten Hag will hope he can anchor the defence against City as adeptly as he did in January, when Varane and makeshift centre-back Luke Shaw helped to keep Haaland on a tight leash and limit the champions to a single shot on target.
Varane lasted just 40 minutes in that game before limping off injured but not before Kevin De Bruyne had bent a stunning pass beyond his reach for Haaland to slide in to convert for his second goal and City’s third. Varane says the difference between that day and the 2-1 win was the success United had cutting off the myriad supply lines.
“Yes, he’s [Haaland] a very good player, we all know that, but the danger from City is everywhere,” Varane said. “They are very complete. They can score from set-plays, from a possession game and from a transition game.”
“As a defender, the connection [Haaland has] especially with De Bruyne [you have to watch]. That kind of pass is complicated to defend, so we try to cut that connection.”
“We know we can beat them. We have to be consistent for 90 minutes because we know that everything can change in a few seconds.”
After a testing debut season at United given the team’s struggles, Varane has excelled this term and offers an interesting answer when asked if he is playing the best football of his career.
“I think I can read the game better now and anticipate actions much more,” he said. “I am sprinting less on the pitch. I am much more in a good position.”
“The evolution of my game is interesting. I make less tackles and less sprints so that means I am using the positioning very well. That’s one of my strengths now.”
For Varane, representing clubs such as United and Real is as much about mentality as quality. “Sometimes quality is not enough – you need the motivation, character, passion on the pitch,” he said. “To play for these kind of clubs you need something else, something different – that character to fight, to assume responsibility, to never hide on the pitch.”
There can be no hiding from United players if they want to overcome City.