When Manchester United and Real Madrid face off for a place in the Champions League quarterfinals on Tuesday it not only sees two of Europe’s most gloried sides going to head-to-head, but two clubs who have found their best form of the season at just the right time.
You have to go back to mid- November and 21 games to find the last time that United last a meaningful match. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side lead the Premier League by 12 points and have their 20th title all-but wrapped up.
Madrid’s season has been far less spectacular and the relinquishing of their La Liga title has been largely accepted since before the New Year. But, having beaten Barcelona twice in the past week, the repeated dramas of a tumultuous season have faded into the background.
Ferguson, then, is justified in believing that the match—perfectly poised at 1-1 from the first leg—can live up to its billing as well as the memorable couple of ties between the two sides at the start of the millennium.
“Real have just played two fantastic games against Barcelona and they're hitting form at just the right time, while we've been playing consistently well for quite a while now,” he said, according to UEFA.com. “It doesn't get any bigger than this game: two big clubs, two great histories, it's set up to be a marvelous game and I don't think it'll disappoint.
“I think there will be goals, that both teams will score, so you have to think we're going to need more than one goal to go through. My biggest concern is him [Cristiano Ronaldo] turning up! He'll cause us problems throughout the night, which we'll just have to limit, to curtail, the best way we can.”
Ronaldo, of course, is sure to be a focus of attention both on and off the pitch as he returns to Old Trafford for the first time since his record move to Madrid nearly four years ago. In a game full of storylines, there is also the matter of a 1,0000th senior appearance for Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs. Ferguson has confirmed that the Welshman will be involved at some stage.
For Madrid manager Jose Mourinho, despite the fact that his side are through to the Cop del Rey final, failure to progress would leave a huge sense of anticlimax for the remainder of the season. Although he realizes the huge pressure on the match, he has said that he will keep his emotions under control.
“The world will stop to watch this game, a game that's more like a final,” he explained. “Whichever teams reach Wembley, I can't imagine the expectation being bigger than for tomorrow. If I lose tomorrow I won't cry, if I win tomorrow I won't run 100 meters to celebrate, but the feelings will still be the same.”
In theory, Manchester United hold the edge heading into the second leg, having grabbed an away goal at the Bernabeu. To think such a way, though, would be to ignore Real Madrid’s awe-inspiring counter-attacking threat that means that the tie is as evenly poised as any could ever be.
In the two second legs at Old Trafford between the sides back in 2000 and 20003 United ended up chasing the game and came up short. If they take the same approach on Tuesday, it is hard to imagine the result not being equally paralleled.
Madrid’s poor away record in the league has largely been as a result of matches against sides who still sat deep and Ferguson would be wide to get his side to adopt the same approach.
They may be roared on by a raucous home crowd but United have to be as pragmatic as they were in Madrid. Despite picking what appeared to be an attacking lineup, Ferguson used it largely to negate Madrid’s threat on the break, especially out wide. His plans, though, have been compromised somewhat by the absence through injury of Phil Jones and the identity of the man Ferguson selects as a replacement could be crucial.
United may be enjoying their best defensive run since their record shutout streak back in the 2008-09 season, yet it remains difficult to see them keeping Madrid at bay for the 90 minutes.
While they have been mired in turmoil for much of the season, Madrid have oodles of quality throughout their team and are better than any side United have faced in the Premier League this season.
Without Jones as a shield to help prevent Madrid from running at the back four, the Spanish champions could stun United early and force the home side to come out.
The result looks set to remain in doubt right until the very end, but Madrid’s edge in quality should just shine through.
Manchester United 2-2 Real Madrid