The most eagerly awaited tie of the Champions League round of 16 takes place at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium on Wednesday as nine-time winners Real Madrid welcome English giants Manchester United.
There are so many sub-plots to this clash that make viewing essential to fans of both clubs and neutrals alike.
These teams represent two of the world’s richest and most followed clubs, and the tradition and success the two have had in the past make this encounter worthy of watching.
The two managers, Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson, are two of the game’s most colourful and successful characters. Both will be bent on ruining the other’s Champions League challenge and have clashed many times in European competition and the English Premier League.
Mourinho is seen as a potential successor to Ferguson at Old Trafford when he finally decides to retire and he admitted in the pre-match press conference that his next destination after Madrid will be a return to England.
Most observers expect this to happen in the summer, but if Los Merengues lose this two-legged affair with the Red Devils the Portuguese coach could find himself looking for a job sooner rather than later, especially considering their poor attempt to defend their La Liga crown.
United on the other hand will go into this game riding the crest of a wave domestically after weekend results saw them shoot 12 points clear of rivals Manchester City.
All the pre-match player talk has centred quite rightly on Cristiano Ronaldo. Madrid’s megastar once strode out in the red of United to great effect and really developed into the force he is today under the tutelage of Ferguson at Old Trafford.
His world record £80 million transfer to the Spanish capital has seen his incredible talent transcend to yet another plane, and but for the incomparable Lionel Messi, Ronaldo would be the undoubted number one player in the world.
Ferguson knows very well what to expect from his one-time protégé and will employ the personnel and tactics he feels will nullify the considerable threat posed by the Portuguese winger. However, teams have tried and failed repeatedly to do this and United will have exactly the same difficulty.
Madrid are far from being a one man team. The likes of Mesut Ozil, Karim Benzema, Sami Khedira, Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria will also need to be countered by the English league leaders who themselves will find it difficult to impose their game against the highly effective Real Madrid attack.
In Robin van Persie they do have one of European football’s top strikers and they will rely heavily on him to snap up any of the rare chances they’re likely to get. But their attack is not where the game is going to get away from them on Wednesday.
United’s back four is likely to be decimated by Ronaldo’s pace and movement, and with Ozil and co pulling the strings, the elderly Rio Ferdinand, recently fit again Nemenja Vidic and the wayward Rafael and Patrice Evra are in for a torrid evening.
Ferguson will also look at his midfield and realise very quickly this is another weak link in the armour. Gone are the days when players like Paul Scholes and Roy Keane bossed and bullied the opposition into submission. Instead, Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley are patently short of the top class needed to compete in the heat encountered at this level.
And to top it off, David De Gea is likely to get the nod to play in United’s goal and Mourinho will almost certainly target him for pressure at set-pieces and crosses to really test out the fragile keeper’s even more fragile confidence.
Ferguson will consider a narrow defeat to the Spanish champions something of a success, but with a third Champions League victory being priority number one for Mourinho, Madrid will go out with all guns blazing to put the tie to bed before the return leg in Manchester.
Prediction: Real Madrid 3-1 Manchester United