Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid
13 January, 19:45 GMT
Real Madrid and Manchester United face off against each other in the blockbuster tie of the last 16 stage of this season’s Champions League, as Sir Alex Ferguson readies his team to travel to the home of the Spanish giants managed by his friendly-foe, Jose Mourinho. While Fergie would have hoped for a much easier knock-out tie after securing first place in the group stages, Mourinho would have also not expected such a harsh penalty for finishing behind Borussia Dortmund. However, these are the sort of matches that the football world craves for and now the only hope remains that the football matches all the hype surrounding the fixture. This is certainly not one for the faint-hearted.
Real Madrid go into the game much short on confidence having suffered some indifferent results in La Liga recently, which have left them a massive 16 points behind league leaders Barcelona. Although they did win the game against Sevilla on Saturday by a handsome margin, the obvious flaws in their game were masked by the brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo, who faces his former club for the first time since leaving them at the end of 2008-09 season.
Madrid’s lack of challenge in the La Liga also acts as a blessing in disguise for a team who has not won the coveted trophy for a decade. Mourinho has his sights firmly set on this one as he is trying to become the first manager to win the European Cup with three different clubs and his team selection over the weekend mirrored his thought process as several of the first team stars were rested. However, despite their poor form by their standards, Jose’s men cannot be taken lightly and in fact, are favourites going into the game.
Manchester United, on the other hand, are having their best league campaign ever as they lead the title race by 12 points are almost certain to win the league with 12 games to go. However, they did have a tricky group stage of the competition and despite topping their group, they had to work very hard to get the favourable results. It is not often that the Ferguson led United go in a game as underdogs, but this is certainly the case in this one especially after their performances in Europe over the past one and a half season. However, one can certainly not rule United out as with the likes of van Persie and Wayne Rooney in their ranks, they have the capability to destroy any defence across the globe.
Team News & Tactics
Jose Mourinho has a few defensive injury problems to deal with going into the game. While Iker Casillas is definitely out for this one, Pepe is also a doubt for the game as he has just returned from injury. Raphael Varane is also recovering from an injury problem but is likely to be risked by the manager especially after his showing against Barcelona in the Cup semi-final. Other than these, the Portuguese has a rather healthy squad to chose his starting eleven from.
Marcelo was dropped for the game against Sevilla for footballing reasons as there are speculations about his ill-behaviour shown in training. Therefore, Coentrao is likely to start at left back and although the Portuguese is not as effective going forward as the Brazilan, he is much better defensively. Arbeloa will be the right-back while Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane will be the central defensive partnership. Varane is likely to take the mantle of controlling Robin van Persie and this might turn out to be one of the most interesting battles of the contest. Going forward, the attacking threat of Sergio Ramos from set-pieces cannot be discounted as well.
Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso will be the deep-lying playmakers as they will be responsible for the ball distribution for the home side. One of the two, Khedira in all probability, is likely to be given the task of keeping Rooney in check as the Englishman will be looking to drop behind van Persie and control United’s attacking play. While Ozil and Ronaldo are definite starters, Callejon might get the nod ahead of Angel Di Maria owing to the Argentine’s poor form in recent games. Karim Benzema is also certain to start up-front ahead of Higuain.
Madrid’s game plan will be to hit United on the break as the visitor’s lack of pace in defence could be taken advantage of. The home side will also be weary of their defending from set-pieces this season as they have conceded quite a few goals this season from corners and free-kicks. On the other hand, the Red Devils have proved to be a handful from dead-ball situations in the league this season and will be looking to capitalize on the home side’s weakness. However, Madrid’ biggest weakness is also its major strength as they have an excellent opportunity to dart at the opposition goal at break-neck speed with most of the opposition players in Madrid’s half.
Probable Starting Lineup (4-2-3-1): Lopez(GK); Arbeloa, Varane, Ramos, Coentrao; Khedira, Alonos; Ronaldo, Ozil, Callejon; Benzema
The visitors were dealt couple of injury blows in their game against Everton as both Jonny Evans and Phil Jones limped off during the second half and are a major doubt for this game. Also missing is Paul Scholes, who has been struggling with a knee injury. Ashley Young, although deemed fit, has not played for almost a month now but Ferguson might take a chance with his fitness. All the other players are fit apart from Darren Fletcher who continues to be a long-term absentee.
Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic are expected to start this one in central defence as the United back line have looked completely different under the guardianship of the two experienced defenders. Rafael will be given the almost impossible task of containing Cristiano Ronaldo but it will also be an opportunity for the young Brazilian to take advantage of Ronaldo’s weakness to track back and help in defence. Patrice Evra will be the left-back as usual and will be an important attacking option for Fergie’s men in set-piece situations.
Michael Carrick will be the deep-lying playmaker for Man United and is probably the most key figure for them in this tie. The Englishman has been excellent this season and had made his team tick on most occasions during the campaign. Van Persie will be the other key man for the visitors as they will be depending on him to get that all so important away goal. He will be supported by Wayne Rooney who will be dropping deep and also on the left side on occasions making it difficult for the home side’s defence. Nani is likely to start on the right-wing given Valencia’s poor form while Cleverley and Kagawa are likely to be the two central midfielders playing ahead of Carrick.
It will be a fluid front formation put out by Sir Alex as Kawaga, Cleverley and Rooney are likely to swap places at will from time to time making it awkward for Madrid’s two defensive midfielders to mark them. Having said that, United are expected to absorb pressure in this game and hit them on the break as they would not like to fall too far behind in the first leg like they did when the two teams met last time in 2003. Van Persie’s hold up play will be a crucial factor for United as it will help the team to break the constant pressure put upon them by the home side. As stated earlier, Man United will also be looking to take advantage of Madrid’s weakness from set-pieces.
Probable Starting Lineup: De Gea(GK); Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Carrick,; Kagawa, Cleverley, Nani; Rooney; van Persie
- European encounters between these two teams have produced goals at a ratio of 3.9 goals/game.
- Real Madrid have won two and drawn two of their home meetings against Manchester United scoring three times in three of those games.
- Manchester United have won only two of their thirteen away Champions League games in Spain.
- Madrid have scored at least once in 30 of their last 31 UCL games.
- Sir Alex has won just two of their fourteen games against Jose Mourinho.
Player To Watch Out For
Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)
There couldn’t be any bigger sub-plot in any game than this one as Ronaldo is ready to face his former club Manchester United for the first time since his departure from Old Trafford in 2009. Although the Portuguese sensation has said a lot of words of respect and praise for Sir Alex and United, no sympathy will be shown by him during the 180 minutes of the tie. All eyes, especially those of United’s defenders, will be on him, as he is one player who is bound to score during the two games.
Real Madrid 2 – 1 Manchester United
Teams will be cautious not to go too far behind in the first leg. However, Madrid and Ronaldo will come hard at United, but Fergie’s mein could come away with a vital away goal at the Bernabeau. Things will be tantalizingly poised after the ninety minutes of nerve wrecking football in Madrid.