Ever since Manchester United were drawn against Real Madrid in the first knockout round of the 2013 Champions’ League, the 5th of March has been on every United and Madrid fan’s mind. It is a match that sets the world alight and inspires a thousand clichés of the highest quality. But no cliché can do this gargantuan game justice (another cliché), as two iconic teams, rich in both history and talent compete in a finely poised tie to advance to the last 16.
“Form goes out the window in games like these.” Of course, this is true to an extent, and United fans will be hoping Real’s two Clasico wins aren’t replicated at Old Trafford.
However, it is worth looking beyond the Clasicos. Whilst Madrid’s form is certainly stellar, having won four out of the last four La Liga games, they previously lost to Granada away and struggled to overcome a dogged Deportivo La Coruña, again away from home, during their winning streak. Manchester United have more than matched this impressive winning run, assuredly easing past their last five opponents. Despite this success, Phil Jones’ injury is a keen blow for Fergie and his game plan, as Jones was key to United’s first leg success, snuffing out Madrid attacks like an exuberant guard dog. Cleverley is one of the candidates to replace Jones along with 1000 game man Ryan Giggs, but whoever is chosen will undoubtedly compromise the team’s level of rigidity and defensive assurance. Mourinho himself sprang a surprise when he named Iker Casillas in the travelling squad, despite the belief that the Spanish keeper would be out due to a broken thumb. But, with no match practice since the 23rd January, it is likely to be one of the Portuguese’s famed mind games. Otherwise, Madrid boast a full and healthy squad.
The Real Madrid squad is like a Swiss army knife; they have many ways to prise open the lock of a defence, and whilst they may have their favoured tools, all are effective to varying degrees against various defensive combinations. Ronaldo, Benzema, Di Maria, Ozil, Alonso, Modric, Kaka, Callejón, even Coentrao rampaging from left-back. It is a startlingly extensive toolbox, and one to fear and respect. However, in Spain it is a general consensus that if Ozil or Ronaldo don’t perform, neither do Madrid. This is how United nullified the Madrileños in the first leg, completely shutting down the space in which the tricky duo could operate. Save for a jump from Ronaldo that rivalled Felix Baumgartner (and a lot of help from ‘San’ De Gea) the home side would have been held to zero goals. Critics and pessimists may point to Madrid’s wins since that game, two Clasico wins, and give up hope. If the best club side in the history of the world of ever succumb to defeat home and away, what chance do the tepid Red Devils have? Yet, Madrid, I would argue, are essentially the kryptonite to Barcelona’s superman, as they are set up perfectly to beat the Catalonians. Madrid are an extremely incisive counter-attacking team, and so Barcelona pressing high up the pitch and controlling the majority of possession (72% on Saturday) plays straight into Mourinho’s hands, as it gives Ronaldo and co. lots of space to play with. It is therefore imperative that whoever replaces Phil Jones does just as good a job at closing down space and avenues through which Ozil can saunter, as the tie will most likely depend on it. Real Madrid often labour when having to break down a deep lying defence, and Manchester United could spin the counter-attack tactic right back on Madrid. If exposed, Arbeloa is not so strong defensively whilst Coentrao could leave a lot of space which can be taken advantage of. In addition, despite some marvellous saves at the Bernabeu, Diego Lopez is a shaky keeper; only this weekend he allowed Messi to score in his near post. But for this game plan to be effective, United need to be at their clinical best. Surprisingly, though, with Van Persie, Rooney and Welbeck all starting at the Bernabeu, they struggled to finish off their chances in the previous leg. Welbeck, Van Persie and Giggs were all guilty of misses which could have pushed United out of sight in the tie. Rooney is likely to be deployed in a more defensive and limited position again for the tactical good of the team, so much could rest on the boot of Robin van Persie, and whilst he has only scored 2 in his last 10 Manchester United games, he is a handy tool to have up front for any team.
Despite the defensive set up Manchester United are likely to take, the loss of Jones could compromise any of their attempts to keep the Galacticos off the score sheet, and so they will have to score, obviously, to advance. With Van Persie in poor form by his standards, there is slight apprehension over United’s ability to put the ball in the back of the net. My head says 1-2 to Madrid, my heart says 2-1 to United. Either way, a classic Champions’ League tie awaits.