The most glamorous matchup in the knockout stage of the Champions League will kick off on Wednesday, as nine time champions Real Madrid clash with three-time champions Manchester United, in a mouth-watering fixture, that have story lines, only Hollywood can dream of.
Los Blancos finished second in Group D, three points adrift of first place Borussia Dortmund. The Red Devils won Group H, ending up 2 points ahead of Galatasaray.
The biggest story in this fixture is Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo playing against his former side for the first time, since he left the red side of Manchester back in 2009. While the first leg will take place at the majestic Bernabeu in Madrid, the second leg in Old Trafford will have a circus atmosphere as Ronaldo returns to England. The reaction he will get when he steps on the pitch will be akin to a hero’s welcome. Ronaldo is still beloved by United fans, and many want him to return to the Theatre of Dreams. But for this tie, Ronaldo is the enemy and he will be looking to break the hearts of the vast United fan base.
“It will be special because everyone knows I played for six years at ‘El Manchester’ and I have a lot of affection for the club, but a game is a game – I am not going to war, just to play and enjoy it, trying to help my team to knock them out.” Ronaldo told ESPN.
The question is, who will Jose Mourinho put alongside Ronaldo up front? Both Karim Benzema and Carlos Higuain started over the weekend, while Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria, Jose Maria Callejon and Luka Modric have all made their way onto the team sheet at some point. “The Special One” won’t decide until kickoff, but he does have options and decisions to make.
Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira are the most likely sitting midfielders, but Michael Essien could see duty as well. The former Chelsea star, knows the United lineup better than Khedira, so it wouldn’t be a shock if Essien makes the sheet. Alonso also has experience playing United from his Liverpool days.
The back four has been a major concern all season for Real Madrid. Too many times, the defenders have been soft on markings, leaking chances and goals at inopportune times. Right back Alvaro Arbeloa is the worst offender. Too many times does Arbeloa let the left winger fly down the flank with nary a challenge. Slow-footed and soft, it is a mystery why Arbeloa makes the team sheet on a regular basis. Pepe and Sergio Ramos have had issues at centre back as well. Ramos tends to wander too far downfield, which leaves him wayward defensively. Pepe is surprisingly having a down year, after a terrific Euro 2012. Fabio Coentrao should start at left back, though Marcelo Vieira could see time on the pitch as well.
Iker Casillas is still rated very highly as a keeper, but the Real Madrid captain hasn’t been in top form all season. The Spanish International will need to be better with a high-powered United team, ready to strike.
Sir Alex Ferguson also has concerns about United as well. The midfield has been in tatters for most of the season, and Ferguson knows this will not do against Real Madrid. Will Ferguson go with the old guard, and have the likes of Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes on the team sheet? Or will young legs like Antonio Valencia, Tom Cleverley and Nani get the call? Nani in particular, desperately wants to square up against Ronaldo, but the Portuguese International has been a disappointment this season for United. Ferguson is very coy when it comes to announcing his lineups, so expect a surprise or two, when the team sheet is released.
Strikers Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie are a dynamic duo, that could feast on Madrid’s shaky defending. Rooney is the efficient finisher while Van Persie is deadly on set pieces. Javier Hernandez could also see time. The Mexican International has 3 goals in the Champions League, but has struggled with inconsistent play. Still, he is a threat every time he touches the ball.
The back four for United has been a work in progress. Right back Rafael will have the daunting task of shadowing Ronaldo for most of the game. While the Brazilian is a solid defender, he will have his work cut out for him. Since the midfield is left scattered far too many times, Rafael could be worn out by Ronaldo’s surging runs. At centre back it could be either Phil Jones, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Chris Smalling or Jonny Evans. Jones was very effective in United’s victory over Everton over the weekend, but Vidic and Ferdinand have experience on their side. Patrice Evra should get the start at left back, but he will drift to the centre if Ronaldo continually goes down the left flank.
Keeper David de Gea has shown flashes of brilliance, but has also let in some howlers between the sticks. The backup to Iker Casillas on the Spanish National team, de Gea needs to remain focused and not show any leakage for United to go through.
This has all the makings of a cracker. Two high-profile clubs meeting in two legendary grounds. The difference is Ronaldo. He wants to show his old club just who is the best player they ever had. Real Madrid have no chance of winning La Liga, so European glory is their only salvation for this season. United will win the English Premier League, but they haven’t faced anyone with the sheer skill that Real Madrid have. There will be plenty of goals and some of them will be spectacular. In the end though, Ronaldo will show the world that he is one of the best in the game. Real Madrid will go through to the quarterfinals.
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