All eyes are on the tie of the round in the last 16 of the Champions League; Spanish Champions Real Madrid against England’s runners-up Manchester United.
United are the better form team out of the two, now topping the Premiership by 12 points from neighbours Manchester City. Madrid have not been their formidable selves this season and trail leaders Barcelona by 16 points.
Internal problems have plagued Madrid’s season. Manager Jose Mourinho has been his usual outspoken self, causing controversy by trying to tame the attitudes of the likes of Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos. Add this to the apparent bust up with the goalkeeping coach Silvino Loura and an ongoing confrontation with the ‘B’ team coach, and it seems Mourinho has a lot on his hands. It is not known whether Mourinho will definitely be at the Bernabeu next season, but while he is there, he will try his damnedest to accumulate his third Champions League title. One that would be unprecedented as it would be with a third different club.
The aforementioned internal problems are the reason some pundits have swung in favour of Manchester United to actually win the tie. For instance, Steve Nicol, analyst on ESPN’s Pass originally tipped Madrid when the draw was made, but due to the ‘soap opera’ style events that have developed at Real, he now believes United will win.
Reading both teams is a complex matter. United are in a more than strong position to win their 20th league title after Sunday’s defeat of Everton. A game Alex Ferguson admitted to naming a team stronger than he had originally planned, after seeing Manchester City lose away at Southampton on Saturday. Whether this could show on Wednesday, we will see. You would expect at least 9 of the 11 who started against Everton to start against Madrid, with Michael Carrick coming back into the line-up after being on the bench.
In contrast Madrid rang the changes for their game with Sevilla on Saturday. Also after completing his hat-trick star man Cristiano Ronaldo, was substituted just after the hour, giving him important extra rest before the crucial last 16 tie. Real Madrid have fallen so far behind Barcelona, that it is almost as if they have completely dismissed a bid to keep hold of their championship. Ironically, I feel this makes them more of a threat to United. Last seasons title win took a lot out of Madrid, they haven’t been able to run as hard, or as much as last year and it has shown. Mourinho is a perfectionist and he will demand that the performances in Europe far exceed what he has seen in the league, as he searches further glory. They will need to be better than their Group Phase form, as they only came second, which is why they are facing United in the first place. They were outplayed home & away by Borussia Dortmund, who rightfully won Group D, which also featured reigning champions of their respective countries, Ajax and obviously Manchester City.
United have leaked goals at an alarming rate this campaign for a team who are top of their division. The many chances they give to the opposition need to be completely eradicated if they are to stand a chance of progressing to the Quarter Finals. Winning ‘shootouts’ over two legs hasn’t really been United’s style in Europe since succumbing to Milan 5-3 on aggregate in the Semi Finals in 2007. Making 3 finals in 4 years following that defeat, they managed to be able to push the case in home legs and be quite solid in away legs. This United team, evidently, is not as good defensively though as they have been in previous seasons. This is bizarre as they sit atop of their domestic league by an intimidating 12 points. This must surely lead now to people admitting that the Premiership has fallen slightly and that United are the best of what, at the moment, is an ‘overrated’ league. Last season United conceded 33 goals in the whole season when finishing second to their neighbours. They have already let in 31 after 26 games of this campaign.
Since Nemanja Vidic has returned from injury, the defence has looked better and they are not leaking as many goals. Feeling more comfortable as a unit, United have allowed teams to have more of the ball as they consider themselves to have enough ability to soak up the pressure. In fact in their first 19 league games this season, United’s average possession was 59%, whereas in their last 7 games they have had an average of 49%, (Source: Sky Sports). Facing the likes of Everton, Fulham and Wigan they have got through the game keeping clean sheets. Southampton came to Old Trafford though, had a lot of possession, and were unlucky not to come away with a point. Letting the likes of Jason Puncheon have the ball is not like allowing Cristiano Ronaldo to have it and United will know that better than anyone.
We saw against Tottenham, that a more cautious approach is not the best approach for the set of players they have now. Without David De Gea’s saves, United would have been beaten. To sit back against Madrid would need an 18 certificate, as it would be a horror show. On the flip side to letting the opposition have the ball, if United were to have good spells of possession over the two legs, Real are arguably the best counter-attacking team about and with the way Rafael & Patrice Evra bomb forward, they could have serious problems. Mr Ferguson, Parental Discretion is advised. The likes of Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria and of course Ronaldo, revel in switching from their own half to the oppositions box. Carrick needs to be at his best and produce more passes forward, if United are to advance. In my opinion the midfield battle is Xabi Alonso against the ‘poor mans’ version of Xabi Alonso.
United do have the threat of Robin Van Persie. This is a man scoring goals for fun. He could truly hurt Real, if they give him too much room and he has enough ability to punish them if they don’t give him too much room, which could swing it for them. United’s defenders have chipped in with goals quite well this season and set pieces could be Real’s achilles heel, considering the shaky pairings at the back, that they have been fielding throughout the season. Whatever combination of Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Raphael Verane, Raul Albiol and Ricardo Carvalho, will struggle to face a United aerial onslaught.
Real will be without their injured keeper Casillas, but have re-signed Diego Lopez, United may view this with optimism, as we all know Casillas’ quality, but Fabio Capello, when in charge in his second spell at Madrid actually wanted to make Lopez his number 1 keeper. He said the Madrid hierarchy made it difficult for him to do this and, for all intense purposes, Mourinho has also had the same problems in shifting Casillas. So at first glance there is possibly not as much of a weak link as expected.
Though its unlikely to happen, I feel Madrid should use Sergio Ramos at right back to counter any United threat from out wide. Ramos’ desire to drive forward could be less of a cause for concern for Madrid as long as he is not in the centre. His pace can also help counter any United offensive strategies.
United fans may at this stage look at this article and may be shaking their heads thinking are you for real? Well the answer to this is yes I am.
I think this whole tie comes down to needs and desires. United didn’t win the league last year and you can see by the team they played on Sunday their full intention is of correcting that mistake. Real Madrid cannot now win their title this season and therefore are absolutely committed to win the Champions League. Mourinho’s only redemption this season is winning the Champions League. This is not the case for Alex Ferguson. Now I could talk about the fact United’s defence cannot contain the tidal wave that is Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Gonzalo Higuain, Kaka, Angel Di Maria, Mesut Ozil and Luka Modric; but I won’t. What I will say is all the names above expect to win things and they won’t…unless they win the Champions League. Come Wednesday and indeed over the two legs, I believe this desire will show. Mourinho, in his last decade as a manager has never gone a season he has completed without winning a major trophy, he prides himself on that. It is well documented Mourinho’s distain of Arsene Wenger’s acclaim in world football, despite a trophy less cabinet since 2005. Mourinho knows he needs to win to potentially stay in his job. An old friend of mine told me not to go against a bookie and I won’t and I make Madrid hot favourites to qualify.
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