Cristiano Ronaldo is the most obvious threat to Manchester United, but Real Madrid are full of terrors.
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Apparently there is a football match on Tuesday night. Manchester United face Real Madrid at Old Trafford, in the second leg of their Champions League second round tie. It’s very evenly balanced, with the first leg finishing 1-1 at the Bernabéu. Not surprisingly, football fans everywhere – Reds, Madridistas, neutrals, casual fans – are buzzing about this game. This post is meant to summarise some of United’s hopes and fears going into this titanic fixture. If you’re so inclined, share some of your own thoughts in the comments.
Five reasons to be fearful
This is so obvious that I feel slightly embarrassed to include it as a point. He will, of course, be given a great reception at Old Trafford. But don’t expect him to be overawed by the occasion. Ronaldo has become an incredibly reliable big-game player, to the point where it now seems odd that some used to doubt his temperament in these situations. The last time he faced a former club in the Champions League? He scored home and away in the 2007/08 group stages against Sporting Lisbon.
While the fans and media will be fawning over Ronaldo’s every move before, during and after the match, his supporting cast all carry threats that can quickly end United’s interest in the competition. From power (Benzema, Khedira) to gangly trickiness (di Maria) to elegance (Alonso) to beautiful cunning (Özil, Modric), Madrid have an array of weapons with which to attack at brutal speed. If Sergio Ramos starts at right-back with Pepe and Varane playing centrally, every one of Real’s probable outfield players will pose a goalscoring threat, from open play plus set pieces. More worrying still, they are beginning to play with real coherence. Menace abounds in this side.
Starting last Tuesday, he had eight days of reckoning (according to Sid Lowe). His back was against the wall, with the prospect of La Décima on the line – and more importantly for him, his Real Madrid legacy on the line. It is desperately hard to back against Jose Mourinho when his ego, his pride, is threatened in such a manner. Witness the twin response against Barcelona last week, the first of which left Sir Alex “shocked.” To add to that, this is almost certainly Mourinho’s last opportunity to win the Champions League with Real; Fergie will undoubtedly have more chances to do so with United before he finally retires at the age of one hundred and fifty. Momentum is a hard thing to judge, and Fergie has no small measure of it these days, but the Portuguese egoist’s tide is clearly rising.
A plain fact
Real at their best can beat United at their best. As I’ve said before, I’m not even sure what this United at their best looks like yet. Deep down, Real Madrid know that they can go to Old Trafford and win, or at least get the high-scoring draw that would see them go through. There is no question that Madrid are the better side on paper – and there’s no shame in that either. Theirs is an expensively-assembled team of European superstars, while United’s is slightly less extravagant, full of young players for whom this will be the first European glamour tie of many. For many of us, the pride of seeing Welbeck, Jones, Evans, Cleverley et al shining at this level can match the joy that would come from seeing the side progress. A good performance, even in defeat, would see the side leave Old Trafford on Tuesday night with heads held high.
Another unfortunate fact
United’s woeful recent record against Spanish teams can’t be denied. Apart from the one tie against Barcelona in 2008, United have usually been too open tactically, leaving themselves exposed to the counterattack – as in the 2000 tie against Real – or to being dominated in midfield, which Barça exploited in 2009 and 2011, and Athletic Bilbao did with embarrassing ease last season. As Real Madrid legend Guti said in 2003, “[United] always let you play” – echoing Vicente del Bosque’s description of United’s “tactical anarchy” in 2000. United (and Ferguson) have made progress since then, but if a reversion to type obtains on Tuesday, they will be easily dispatched.
£20 on Wayne Rooney to score first and United win 2-1 wins you £820
£20 on Cristiano Ronaldo to score the first goal of the game wins you £100
£20 on Manchester United to go through wins you £44
Five reasons for optimism
The first leg performance and result, which came as a surprise to many around Europe, was very encouraging, from a side featuring so many young players. Though on the back foot for much of the game, United played bravely and carried a significant threat of their own, embodied brilliantly in the performance and goal by Danny Welbeck, a player we’ve backed many times at this site. With the return leg at Old Trafford – and hopefully the atmosphere in the ground will suit the occasion – it should be United’s turn to put pressure on the Merengues.
Different ways of winning
Real may have shown a mastery of how to beat Barcelona, but United will play a very different game. It’s unlikely they will be afforded the space that the Barça defence gave them, and they have shown, on many occasions this season, how disjointed and witless they can look when tasked with dictating a game. In all likelihood, Madrid will have to attack with imagination in order to win on Tuesday – meaning Özil, not Ronaldo, will be their most important player.
Sir Alex’s enthusiasm for this tie, and for this season in general, shouldn’t be underestimated. He is loving it. I’ve recently argued that this has been his best season at United, and what I’ve seen since then just adds to the evidence, in my opinion. He clearly relishes everything about this tie. There are sure to be one or two surprises in store from him on Tuesday. While he hasn’t often shown his best in dealing with the Spanish teams (see above), he clearly won the tactical battle in the first leg, and he’d love to get one over his good friend and fellow obsessive Mourinho. Never ever discount this man.
The case for the defence
In case you didn’t notice, United’s backline has shown a massive improvement since the turn of the year. Of course, this has much to do with the return of Vidic – who is unlikely to play on Tuesday – but the Rio-Evans partnership has performed superbly as well, with the added bonus that both are very comfortable on the ball. With Real definitely needing to score on Tuesday, the entire back four – plus de Gea behind them, plus Carrick (and maybe Jones) in front of them – will need to play brilliantly again if United are to have a chance of progressing.
The winning habit
Unbeaten in 18 matches across all competitions, United just aren’t accustomed to losing this season, particularly in the most difficult situations. In the squad are players with experience of winning the competition (Rio, Evra, Carrick, Giggs, Rooney), young players with real character (Welbeck, Cleverley, Jones), those who will relish the chance to prove themselves against the best (Rafael, de Gea), and men who have proven themselves elsewhere and will crave a long Champions League run (Van Persie, Kagawa). The depth of the squad makes it hard for Mourinho (and us) to know what the starting lineup and tactics will be. The squad is fresh, the players are up for it, the manager is in fine form. United have nothing to lose, which is why they may very well win it.
As far as predictions go: Many people will be entertained by the match on Tuesday. Some will be utterly devastated. Enjoy it.