Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid takes on Manchester United in the Champions League
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United’s last 16 pairing in the Champions League has thrown up an opposition we’ve not faced for nearly 10 years – Real Madrid. Although many of us watch La Liga on a regular basis, it’s always worth getting an expert opinion on the intricacies and politics of the club. David Cartlidge has kindly written about Real and covered everything from their tactics to their obsession with a tenth European crown. David’s a freelance writer and written for a long list of reputable websites about Spanish football, most notably as a Spanish football expert for The Mirror. (He also happens to be a United fan!)
Their season so far
Real Madrid’s season so far has been one becoming more known for incidents off the field than on it. The various issues surrounding José Mourinho, including his relationship with some of his players (most notably Iker Casillas), the press and supporters have all taken attention away from on-field problems. The team appears to be lacking the motivation and desire from last season, when they played every game like it was their last. Although the figures show they’ve still had some high-scoring games, the losses they’ve taken on board are most unprecedented. The loss to Granada and draw at Osasuna for instance, just wouldn’t happen last season.
How do they play?
Mourinho will stick with his 4-2-3-1. Diego Lopez deputises for Casillas in goal most likely, and the back-line will be just about first choice with Álvaro Arbeloa, Sergio Ramos, Pepe and Fabio Coentrao. The latter full-back would be out if not for Marcelo’s fitness issues. Xabi Alonso dictates from central midfield in much the manner Paul Scholes has at United over the years, while Sami Khedira plays a powerful, intelligent box-to-box role. Ahead of them will be Mesut Özil centrally and Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria right and left respectively. All three are interchangeable though, and Ronaldo particularly has played centrally this season more than ever before in his career. It’s had varying degrees of success, as in the Granada game he was reluctant to keep width and was shut down by the hosts’ double pivot. Karim Benzema will lead the line but drop off accordingly, into the channels while Ronaldo goes central. The Frenchman isn’t the dynamic force of last season though, and looks off colour.
Ronaldo is of course the obvious one, but in an attempt to be clever I’m highlighting the two key men in my eyes – Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira, the two excellent German midfielders. Özil will look to thread passes through the eye of a needle and pick away at United’s defence, all while gracefully moving across the advanced midfield zone. He can also bring some explosion into his game though, striking the ball well and putting pace into his passing to catch a back-line unaware. Khedira meanwhile is the ‘secret weapon’ of sorts. He’s a bustling midfielder who is having a fine season, and played in his box-to-box role can take teams apart with his intelligent running and taking up of dangerous positions. His on the ball work has improved dramatically this term too after it received much criticism.
How will they operate at Bernabéu?
They’ll primarily be hoping United take chances in terms of pushing numbers into attack, so they can execute their most successful strategy of counter attacking. Here they are at their most ruthless, and in the blink of an eye can rip through a midfield transition and be in the penalty area. If United sit deep, then Madrid might have serious issues. They’ve been slow in terms of ball usage at times this season, stuttering to pick apart teams while on the front foot like they did so well last season. Luka Modrić was signed to alleviate that aspect, but has had little to no impact at all. Ronaldo has really stepped up in this regard, being the difference maker as he often was at United in his final season particularly.
Do they have weaknesses?
A few issues have emerged from Madrid this season. Firstly from the set pieces as they lack cohesion when defending these zones. López in goal is hesitant coming off his line and claiming the ball, so United could look to focus in that area. Finally, placing a man on Xabi Alonso has had brilliant results for teams. He’s the first point of everything that Madrid does, and shutting down his angles will determine the outcome of this tie.
Mourinho’s relationship with United is of course an intriguing one. Some fans at United would love to see him at the club, others would utterly despise the idea. The feeling is of course, the Portuguese would love the chance to take over the most high profile job in English football. After all, few posts would satisfy the greatest ego in football. He needs to find his motivational power again for this tie, as I’m of the belief if he goes out to United it will signal the end of his time with Madrid. This season has been such a turbulent one off the field however, I do wonder if there is any way back even if he claimed the trophy. Tactically he’s made numerous errors this season, in terms of changes and how ambitious his side have been at times. For the first time with Mourinho, Madrid have lacked that gritty, determined attitude so synonymous with the Portuguese coach.
La Decima is the 10th European Cup that Madrid have been seeking since 2002. It’s been an endless quest of managerial casualties, various players and crazy Champions League nights. Mourinho is meant to be the man who can deliver that for them though, brining his calibre of wins with Inter and FC Porto with him. It has become an obsession for the club – and not necessarily in an entirely positive manner.
What atmosphere can United fans expect at the away leg?
As is always the case with Bernabéu the atmosphere will be one resembling a theatre. The fans pay high prices and have even higher expectations. They want to see beautiful counter attacking football demonstrated, and Ronaldo beat four men before slamming the ball into the net. If these things don’t happen it can often turn sour. Expect the majority of the noise to come from Ultras Sur, who let’s say have a few colourful chants and views on things. United fans will be up in the heights at Bernabéu, but knowing the away support their songs will channel around the stadium above any Madrid noise.
The view in Spain
Much of the opinion seems to be while there is great respect for United, their history, Sir Alex and everything else, Madrid have much more quality. This is especially so in midfield, where they see United particularly weak. Of course though, there is huge fear about Robin van Persie.