Tomorrow evening’s European knock-out stage tie between Manchester United and Real Madrid — the biggest football clubs in Britain and Spain, respectively — is understandably a highly anticipated and grand occasion.
It’s the game we’ve all been waiting for and it’s finally among us. Madrid host United in the first of the tie’s two legs.
Both sides are desperate for European success this season, with Real looking to win ‘La Decima’. Los Blancos haven’t won the Champions League since 2002, and will no doubt prioritize this season’s campaign as highly as ever, with their current domestic struggles putting La Liga to one side.
After the mistakes of last season, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United this year made no such errors in what was on paper an easy group. Successes over Galatasaray and Cluj and back-to-back victories over Braga, albeit not totally straightforward, meant the Premier League leaders qualified for the knock-out stages as Group H winners with two games to spare. Ferguson was then able to rest his star men in the later defeats by Galatasaray and Cluj.
With this season’s final set to return to Wembley, United want to avenge the memory of their 2011 humbling by Barcelona and win the competition. But Galatasaray, Braga and Cluj still exposed weaknesses in United’s defending and Real will be a major test. Jose Mourinho may be under pressure at Real but he is plotting to upset friend and rival Sir Alex Ferguson in a repeat of his days with Porto and Chelsea. Mourinho relishes these contests and will want to silence his critics in what will be a battle of mind games.
Jose Mourinho will be without club captain and first-choice goalkeeper Iker Casillas (fractured hand) and so is expected to continue with January recruit Diego Lopez for Wednesday’s fixture.
Portugal centre-back Pepe returned after a month out with a substitute appearance against Sevilla on Saturday and is likely to start against Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.
Angel Di Maria (thigh) is ruled out for both legs but Jose Mourinho could have Xabi Alonso back after he returned to training this week.
Sir Alex Ferguson faced two fresh injury blows after beating Everton on Sunday, as Phil Jones (thigh) and Jonny Evans (knock) were forced off in the 2-0 win at Old Trafford.
Rio Ferdinand is likely to return to partner Nemanja Vidic at centre-back, while Robin van Persie should lead the visitors’ attack with Wayne Rooney deployed in a deeper midfield role.
In any game he plays, Ronaldo’s talent and personality make him the focus of attention. But playing against his former club for the first time since his record move to Real Madrid, Ronaldo is set to be even more prevalent. The Portuguese forward could not have warmed up for the massive match any better than he did when scoring a fine hat-trick as Madrid cruised to a 4-1 win over Sevilla on Saturday.
Spain international and World Cup and European Championship winner Ramos is Real’s version of Vidic. Without him the reigning Primera Liga rulers just aren’t the same in defence and questions are asked about their ability to keep clean sheets.
He will have his work cut out to prevent Robin van Persie wreaking havoc.
The former Liverpool man is not exactly a stranger to United. The midfielder is a World Cup, European Championship, FA Cup, Champions League and Primera Liga winner. He is one of the best passers of a football on the planet. Perhaps an understated hero for Real and Spain and makes both teams tick with smart use of possession.
The Spanish Maestro has been an integral part of the Real Madrid team and will be handed the job to stop Manchester United’s midfield forming a stranglehold in the match
Robin Van Persie
There were plenty of doubts raised when Sir Alex Ferguson decided to plash out £24 million on a 29-year-old with a history of injury problems. But as things stand the money looks like an extremely shrewd investment. Van Perise has struck 23 goals in just 31 appearances in his first season at Old Trafford and has taken United’s attacking play to a new level.
The former Arsenal man has demonstrated that he can be counted on to not only create chances for himself out of very little but to make the most of opportunities that fall his way. In what promises to be a finely balanced encounter with Madrid, that ruthlessness could be vital.
The absence of their injured captain has been a major factor in United’s defensive problems. His return to fitness is a major bonus.
United have lost just once this season when the Serbian has been in the side and that was a 1-0 Premier League opening day defeat at Everton. In the dozen matches Vidic has appeared in since then, the top flight’s best side have won on nine occasions.
The 31-year-old brings leadership and stability to a United rearguard which looks shaky in his absence and he will have to be at his supreme best to nullify the immense threat posed by former Old Trafford favourite Cristiano Ronaldo.
The versatile young Englishman is far from a first-choice for Manchester United and may well not even start, however, he has become the man for specific assignments for Sir Alex Ferguson. Jones, who has yet to establish his best position, was deployed in a right-sided defensive midfield role against Tottenham recently to try and mitigate the impact of Gareth Bale after the Welshman had ripped through United in their meeting earlier in the season.
Although he is at this stage a superior player, Ronaldo operates in similar manner to Bale starting on the left but with ample license to come inside. Without Jones, there would be major concerns about Rafael at right back, protected by a potential central midfield partnership of Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley. It would be a huge ask for the 20-year-old to marshal Ronaldo, but it could prove a tactical masterstroke.
Defence looks set to decide this fixture despite both team’s attacking riches.
While the focus for tomorrow’s first leg in Madrid will be on Cristiano Ronaldo taking on his former club as well as the Portuguese forward going head-to-head with Robin van Persie, it is likely the game will actually be decided at the back.
United and Real managed just one clean sheet between them in the group stage of this season’s competition – the Premier League leaders defeated Galatasaray 1-0 at Old Trafford back in September.
Real conceded nine goals in their six group stage fixtures, while United – that home clean sheet aside – let in six in five games as they qualified for the knockout stages.
United manager Alex Ferguson has struggled to find the right combination in defence all season and has relied on his team’s attacking prowess to win matches, but in Madrid he may revert to a more defensive structure.
Ferguson has traditionally packed the midfield and set his team up in a 4-5-1 formation when travelling away in the Champions League, which could see Van Persie start up front in Madrid with Wayne Rooney either on the bench or in behind the Dutch striker.
Real coach Jose Mourinho will know, however, that his team must take their chances at the Santiago Bernabeu with United’s front two in deadly form.
Rooney headed into last week’s international break having scored 10 goals in as many games since the start of December and also got on the scoresheet in England’s 2-1 friendly win over Brazil, while Van Persie has hit the back of the net 23 times in 31 matches this season.
By comparison, Ronaldo has scored 32 goals in 30 games across all competitions this season for Real.
With goals guaranteed and the teams’ respective defences likely to make the difference, Mourinho faces a big problem with Casillas missing.
Mourinho’s side have won just two of their past five matches in all competitions and have seven victories in 14 games.
In the same period, Manchester United have not lost and have won 11 times, opening up a 12-point lead in the English Premier League.
The first legs of European knockout ties are usually tense affairs, with the away side content to hit the hosts on the counterattack in search of an away goal.
This game should be no different, with United well aware that Mourinho’s Real Madrid operate best in swift breaks. Expect the hosts to enjoy plenty of the ball in the visitors’ half but they will be wary of United’s goal threat with Rooney and Van Persie in attack.