In a tantalizing Champions League tie as potentially closely matched as the one between European heavyweights Real Madrid and Manchester United, the involvement of each manager in terms of tactics and team selection could well be the decisive factor.
As kick-off approaches for the first leg of their Round-of-16 tie at the Bernabeu, there is much intrigue as to the lineups that will be unveiled by two of the most successful coaches in the game, Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson.
Mourinho’s central decision appear to be whether to risk Pepe at the heart of the defense. The Portuguese center-back played for the first time since December in a 22-minute substitute appearance against Sevilla at the on Saturday.
Perhaps in the past, Mourinho would have rushed Pepe back into the side. However, young French defender Raphael Varane has been performing admirably in his absence and showed he can cope with the big occasion with a stunning display against Barcelona recently.
At left-back Fabio Coentrao should keep his place ahead of Marcelo, who is still searching for full fitness.
Further forward, the side seems more settled. Angel di Maria was left out on occasions earlier in the season, but is now in better form. Mesut Ozil looks certain to get the nod over Luka Modric in the hole behind the striker.
Up front, Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain have often been alternated and they even played in tandem at the weekend. But Benzema has been favored by Mourinho of late and looks set to lead the line.
There are more question marks over Manchester United’s lineup. Nemanja Vidic has been used sparingly since his return from a second serious knee injury, but, despite playing on Sunday against Everton, it is almost inconceivable that the Serbian will not lineup alongside Rio Ferdinand at the Bernabeu.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Ferguson’s lineup is whether Phil Jones will be selected in a defensive midfield role to help negate the threat of Cristiano Ronaldo. The versatile Jones did a similar job to general success against Tottenham recently.
If Jones is selected, and with Michael Carrick a certain starter, it then raises the question of who will occupy the remaining central midfield berth. Wayne Rooney could start in an offensive role with his work rate also meaning he could potentially disrupt Xabi Alonso’s passing rhythm. Another option would be the creativity of Shinji Kagawa, although Tom Cleverley’s energy and better defensive skills could see him get the start.
If not selected centrally, Rooney will start from a position on the left, while on the other flank, despite not being in the best form, Antonio Valencia’s greater work rate should be favored over Nani’s more unpredictable talents.
Real Madrid (Probable)
D: Arbeloa, Ramos, Varane, Coentrao
M: Khedira, Alonso
Di Maria, Ozil, Ronaldo
Manchester United (probable)
G: De Gea
D: Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra
M: Jones, Carrick
Valencia, Cleverley, Rooney
F: Van Persie
Real Madrid are clear favorites with the bookmakers to take an advantage form the first leg at home.
With both William Hill and Paddy Power, Real Madrid are 8/13 to get the victory at the Bernabeu, while Manchester United are a 4/1 shot.
William Hill has a draw down at 23/10, with Paddy Power putting it at 3/1.
Where to watch
The First Leg of the Champions League last-16 tie will kick-off at 2.45 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by the Fox Soccer Channel, with a live stream available via a free trial to Fox Soccer 2Go. In the U.K. the match will be screened on Sky Sports 2, with a live stream on offer via SkyGo.