In tonight’s intriguing clash between Manchester United and Real Madrid the Manchester club have very much been labelled as underdogs by both pundits and bookmakers alike. However United’s recent ‘big away game’ form means that they would be justified in feeling quietly confident going into the tie.
So far this season United have already impressively been victorious away at Stamford Bridge, Anfield and the Etihad stadium. Also most recently they were just minutes away from gaining all three points at White Hart Lane and this is very much due to a changing mentality adopted. The signing of Van Persie alongside the influential figure of Wayne Rooney has left United with two seemingly ‘undroppable’ strikers this campaign, and fitting them both into a system hasn’t hindered the club as many predicted, but rather provided a new outlook.
Compared to last season’s cautious approach in big fixtures - the away defeat at the Etihad springing to mind - they are now playing with a bravery and self-belief that could see Manchester United prevail at the Santiago Bernabeu. However, this is Real Madrid and the attacking flair at their disposal is greater than any United will face in the Premier League. It’s imperative that United pick their moments carefully to stride toward. They must show attacking impetus whilst offering protection at the back.
Due to this, tonight’s fixture could see Phil Jones starting alongside Carrick and Cleverley in the Manchester United midfield. It’s expected that the 19 year old will perform a man-marking job against Ronaldo as it proved to be successful in the rehearsals against Gareth Bale and Marouane Fellaini. However this has the potential to be maladaptive; too much focus on Ronaldo could somewhat play into Madrid’s hands.
The ex-Manchester United man is not the sole danger for Madrid and too much attention could free their other attackers, in particular Mesut Ozil. The German international is the best in Europe at drifting from central areas and find the killer pass. He provided the most assists in Europe in 2012, eclipsing Lionel Messi with 24, and he contributed 0.53 assists per 90 minute. Rather than focusing too heavily on Ronaldo which could leave space for Ozil, United should allow Rafael the responsibility to deal with him. The Brazilian right back produced yet another Man of the Match performance at the weekend and he has given United every reason to trust him with the task to deal with Ronaldo as he has with world-class wingers previously.
Similarly, Real Madrid would be mistaken in focusing their attention on United’s main man Van Persie, as it’s probable that Wayne Rooney will be the one providing the greatest attacking difference for United. Madrid-based newspaper Marca however view him as a danger in a different way, writing that ‘Wayne Rooney is a football player and hooligan all rolled into one’. They also have described him as a ‘freckled demon’ that is on his way to ‘blow up the Bernabeu’. However they should be more cautious of his footballing ability as statistics prove him to be most dangerous at this stage in the competition. The 27-year-old has scored 14 of his 27 goals after the group stage, which represents an unrivalled 52 per cent of strikes in the last-16 and beyond. His recent goal-scoring form suggest that this run will continue and should Manchester United score it will most likely be through him.
The tie contains numerous mouth-watering clashes, from Carrick vs Alonso, to Di Maria vs Evra but the most high profile duel will come from the dugout – Sir Alex Ferguson vs Jose Mourinho. In the build up to the fixture Sir Alex has vowed not to get into a psychological battle with Mourinho. “My advice to myself is not to go down that road, not to contest that because he is a clever bugger, and so I let him get on with it, he enjoys it better than I do.”
This back-handed compliment is indicative of the great respect and admiration that Sir Alex has towards Jose Mourinho. Sir Alex in recent times has placed great emphasis on the fact that when he finally does step down and retire, it will be only him who chooses his successor. His public praise towards Mourinho compounded by Pep Guardiola’s recent commitment to Bayern Munich could be telling that there a high chance that Mourinho will become the next Manchester United manager.
He certainly fits the bill and has the confidence and mentality to succeed. The most cynical of people would argue that Mourinho isn’t suitable as he is considered to be bigger than the club. However United need success after Ferguson and Mourinho’s managerial record is unrivalled in terms of honours won leaving him as the most appropriate successor.
In the glamour-tie of the round the outcome really could go either way. My prediction for the first leg would be 2-2 – with Ronaldo and Benzema bagging for Madrid and Rooney to score two for United.