Real Madrid take on Manchester United in the most eagerly awaited Champions League tie of the last 16 on Wednesday night. It is the game that almost everyone wanted, apart from the two teams themselves. Real Madrid are desperately in search of ‘La Decima’, the tenth European Cup triumph in their history. Manchester United want to add to their haul of three Champions League triumphs to date.
Both of these sides have been thwarted in their continental ambitions by a familiar foe in recent times. Barcelona, the greatest team in the world. For Jose Mourinho, the Catalans remain stubbornly superior to his side, something which has caused the Portuguese to continually act out whilst in Madrid. Whilst Alex Ferguson at least has the grace to concede inferiority with class when his team have been beaten twice by Barcelona in recent Champions League finals.
This is therefore an unwelcome early battle, for those involved, of two of the tournament’s titans. In theory, Manchester United should have the advantage. They are away from home in the first leg. They have a huge advantage in the Premier League and seemingly have the title wrapped up. By contrast Real Madrid have conceded that they can no longer win La Liga. And whilst Real Madrid are plagued by infighting and reports emanating from the Bernabeu of internal strife caused by Mourinho’s outrageous comments, United represent a picture of serenity and harmony as the season enters its final months.
Yet you feel as though Real Madrid have been gearing up for this game. They will have been pinning their hopes on this game ever since they fell 16 points behind Barcelona domestically, and the lack of effort seemingly on show in La Liga should not be evident again on Wednesday night.
The bottom line of this encounter is, for all of their problems, Real are simply a much better team than United. Robin van Persie is a fantastic centre forward, the epitomy of the modern all round striker who can play with his back to goal and play a part in build up play, as well as finish attacks. And his ability to score goals out of nothing is vital. Yet the Dutchman is no match for Cristiano Ronaldo, who has netted 13 goals this calendar year already, including three hat tricks (it tells you all you need to know about Leo Messi that Ronaldo’s record is patchy in comparison).
Alongside Ronaldo will be Karim Benzema and Angel di Maria most likely, and the three are all superb technically and difficult to push off the ball. Backed up by the talents of Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira and Luka Modric, it is hard to see United being able to get a foothold in this game. Wayne Rooney, Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Shinji Kagawa are all very good players, but are not in the same class as Madrid.
The Spanish side struggle most when a team sets up defensively against them, waiting for Madrid to break them down rather than taking the initiative. It is hard to imagine United playing that way, particularly as Ferguson will remember drawing 0-0 at the Bernabeu as reigning champions in 2000, before losing the home game 3-2. The United boss is always wary of going into a home leg without an away goal. This will play into Madrid’s hands tactically, and the Spanish side’s busy midfield and strong defence is good enough to deprive Rooney and van Persie of space. It is hard to imagine how United will be able to build up attacks without seeing much of the ball. During the group stage, Real Madrid created far more chances than United did, and in a much harder group, too.
The problem ultimately is that United’s excellent players just are not as good as those of Madrid. Ronaldo is better than van Persie, Xabi Alonso better than Michael Carrick, Benzema superior to Rooney, Sergio Ramos likewise Nemanja Vidic. The best hope United will have is to feed the ball into van Persie and hope he can catch Diego Lopez off guard from distance. But that is a strategy that relies on fortune to some extent.
History also backs Madrid, who have won three out of the four ties these two sides have played against each other over the years. Mourinho himself has only lost two out of twelve encounters with Ferguson previously. It is difficult to imagine the Scot coming out on top in this battle.