Real Madrid vs Manchester United: The Battle at The Bernabeu
By Chris Higham
The UEFA Champions League resumes play today with two Knockout Phase matches in Glasgow and Valencia but all eyes will be on Madrid tomorrow for a match that this beautiful game of ours throws up only occasionally. At 7.30 GMT sharp, Real Madrid will entertain Manchester United in the First Leg of their dream tie at The Bernabeu Stadium. We can only guess at what the two footballing giants have in store for us.
Real Madrid come into this match needing a huge injection of passion following their dismal La Liga performance this season. They languish eighteen points adrift of arch enemy Barcelona in third place, all but dead and buried in the title chase by almost every expert. Internal issues have dogged their season with iconic veterans such as Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos voicing their "concerns" about their manager Jose Mourinho's methods. The Portuguese master has questioned the form of some of the club's most storied players, namely Casillas, which at Real, is just not done. Consequently, the form of their best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, has been put under the microscope and he has responded magnificently although rumours about his unhappiness at the club, still circulate. Real's Champions League form has been of a high standard without showing the flowing style of play that we know they are capable of. Finishing second in a Group containing the hugely impressive Borussia Dortmund and a stuttering Manchester City was enough to get them through, but was sure to pit them against a Group Winner in the Knockout Phase. Their season is on the line.
Manchester United are in the middle of one of their best seasons ever in the Barclays Premier League. They are still competing for three major trophies and have accumulated more points, and scored more goals than in any previous campaign. They come off an efficient 2-0 win over a sturdy Everton side last weekend and are sure to prove a tough test for the Spanish giants. Despite United's obvious success in terms of points and League position, they have been heavily criticised defensively this season and rightfully so. Injuries to their club captain Nemanjia Vidic, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have meant that manager Sir Alex Ferguson has had to rotate his central defenders more than he would have liked. They have shipped goals on a much too regular basis but their real strength lies up front with new signing Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez combining for a total of 50 goals in all competitions, with all of United's goals coming from 18 different players.
Defensively, neither of these two sides impresses me. Real Madrid have had issues with injuries to Marcelo, Xavi Alonso, Pepe, Ramos and Casillas disrupting the continuity at the back. Only Marcelo will be missing from Real's line-up on Wednesday and they will be looking to put United to the sword early as this is the First Leg. I'd expect Ronaldo to spend a lot of his time on the right as Evra is a weak point for United defensively. His forays forward have produced goals for him this season but he is no longer able to track back properly and consequently, gaps open up. Alonso will play a huge part in Real's transition and counter attack strategy and if he and Ozil control possession, it could be a long night for the Manchester club. Conversely, Man Utd's intentions are simple. Give the ball to Michael Carrick and have him work the ball through the middle to Van Persie and Rooney, or out wide to Valencia , and let them go to work. They will score goals. The question is can they defend. DeGea and Evra are my worries and unless this goalkeeper can eliminate the mistakes, it's matches like this that will cost him his future at Old Trafford.
I expect an offencive treat tomorrow night with several goals. I'm going for Real Madrid to run out winners 3-2 with a barnstormer of a Second Leg at Old Trafford on offer just two weeks later.
I suggest enjoying this tie while we can. They don't come along very often.
My line-ups are as follows:
Man Utd: DeGea, Raphael, Vidic, Evans, Evra, Carrick, Cleverley, Kagawa, Valencia, Van Persie, Rooney
Real Madrid: Lopez, Arbeloa, Ramos, Pepe, Coentrao, Alonso, Ozil, Khedira, Di Maria, Ronaldo, Higuain