United's last throw of the dice
© AFP

It is easy to reminisce over the beauty of Manchester United's European Cup winning side of 1968; one whose allure spread infectiously from the boots of Bobby Charlton, George Best and Co until its memorable zenith: a 4-1 victory over Benfica in the continental decider. It is often easy to forget, however, that it was not all plain sailing for the Red Devils.

Sir Matt Busby's side recovered a two-goal deficit to draw 3-3 with Real Madrid their semi-final, second leg in Spain, consequently inching through on aggregate, while Alex Stepney's stunning late save enabled them to take the final into extra-time, from where they overwhelmed their Portuguese opponents. United also struggled against Gornik Zabrze in the last eight, but ultimately progressed thanks to an 11th-hour goal from 18-year-old Brian Kidd at Old Trafford.

Kidd enhanced his reputation by scoring in the memorable defeat of Benfica on his 19th birthday. The hype that engulfed the United legend back then nevertheless pales in comparison to the publicity surrounding the club's latest boy wonder as they prepare for another European quarter-final.

That is because of the fact Federico Macheda is over four months shy of his 18th birthday, was born in Rome [Kidd was almost three months past his 18th birthday when he made his United debut and was born just one-and-a-half miles from Manchester city centre], and has made a stunning impact in just 52 minutes of professional football.

This is the best day of my life and one I have always dreamed of. I want to keep going as I have been doing and just enjoy my football.
Manchester United's Federico Macheda after scoring a sublime winner on his debut against Aston Villa

Manchester United were trailing Aston Villa 2-1 at Old Trafford and being outplayed by the visitors. They were seemingly en route to relinquishing the Premier League's driving seat when Ferguson summoned Macheda from the substitutes' bench just after the hour mark on 5 April. Swiftly, the pendulum swung in the visitors' favour and, after Cristiano Ronaldo had equalised, the Italian forward snatched his side a 3-2 victory. Collecting the ball with his back to goal in the 93rd minute, left-lying and just inside the Villa penalty area, he turned his marker with an exquisite flick before curling the ball just inside Brad Friedel's left-hand post.

"This is the best day of my life and one I have always dreamed of," said Macheda afterwards. "I was surprised to be on the bench, to be honest. I was asked to go to Italy and join up with the national team [at youth level] but Sir Alex said I had to stay here because I might be on the bench. It was then I knew I had a chance. It's a great day but my life is still the same as before. I want to keep going as I have been doing and just enjoy my football."

'Kiko' certainly did maintain his form next time out, at Sunderland on Saturday. With United struggling for inspiration, he replaced Dimitar Berbatov on 75 minutes and took a mere 46 seconds to score the game's third and final goal.

"It's a fantastic story," said goalkeeper Ben Foster afterwards. "It was an unbelievable goal last week and he's done it again. Midfielder Paul Scholes added: "It's great to be able to bring on a young lad like that. He looks like a great goalscorer and there's hopefully more to come from him."

Manchester United face an uphill challenge in their quest to retain their UEFA Champions League crown and preserve their quintuple dream, having drawn 2-2 at home to Porto in the first leg of their quarter-final. Moreover, no English has ever beaten the 1987 and 2004 European champions at the Estádio do Dragão.

I think he'll be involved on the bench. It's difficult to leave him out, isn't it? He has got something special about him.
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson on Federico Macheda's prospects of playing against Porto this evening

And despite having some of the world's most reputable attacking players at his disposal, namely Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney and Berbatov, Ferguson is tempted to utilise Macheda at some point against Os Dragões.

"I think he'll be involved on the bench," said Ferguson. "I've got Wayne Rooney back, which is a big bonus for us. But it's difficult to leave him out, isn't it? He has got something special about him. He's just got that instinct that goalscorers have. He has good movement and he's quick. He isn't fazed by anything."

So, if Porto's defence can manage to repel Manchester United's superstar attackers, they will likely face another assignment: denying Macheda the chance to exaggerate a seemingly fictitious first chapter to what many already feel will be a wonderful career.