Real Madrid vs. Manchester United is the kind of tie that is more befitting of a Champions League final rather than the first knockout round. Neither side would have fancied it at such an early stage, but you’ve got to believe United were feeling a little more confident of the two teams when the draw was made in December.
Real Madrid have been battling demons internally and on the pitch this season, and nothing about them up until this month has suggested they would make similar waves to that of their spectacular outing last season.
The Spanish Super Cup second leg against Barcelona at the Bernabeu was about as impressive as it got for Real for most of the first half of the campaign. They peppered Barcelona’s goal, made the Catalans look weak, vulnerable, and pale in comparison to Pep Guardiola’s dominant side.
The war between Jose Mourinho and Iker Casillas would also have had Manchester United watching with interest, as here was a situation where maybe the Real captain may not even play in the Champions League at either Old Trafford or the Bernabeu. That’s of course the case we’re presented with now following Casillas’ injury, but at the time that particular conflict – one of many – created bold headlines. Real Madrid lost 3-2 to Malaga with Casillas on the bench, and then saw Antonio Adan sent off only minutes into the following game, which Madrid were perhaps fortunate to win 4-3 against Socediad
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And then it all exploded. Real Madrid travelled to Valencia needing to win and annihilated Los Che with five first-half goals. It was the Real Madrid of old, the relentless attacking, the majestic midfield wizardry of key playmakers, Cristiano Ronaldo at his very best. It was the highest of the highs in a difficult and bitter season up until that point. Losses had been felt at places like Getafe and Betis, and Celta Vigo had given them a scare in the quarter-final of the Copa del Rey. But then it all just seemed to work out. If that was the Real Madrid that will go into the Champions League tie later this month, then Manchester United are in for a world of pain.
The thing is it’s thus far been a one-off. We saw something similar in Real’s last league game against Getafe (where Ronaldo scored a hat trick), but not for such a sustained period. It was a dull affair that only came to life for around 10 minutes and then fizzled out into nothing. United will be hoping that that’s the Madrid that turns up and the best Mourinho’s team can offer in terms of overall performances, in which case Alex Ferguson’s side will be the stronger outfit, especially mentally.
A big bonus for United is that Casillas’ place will be taken by new signing Diego Lopez, who started in the Copa del Rey first leg clash against Barcelona. He’s a good player, has plenty of first-team experience in La Liga and in the Champions League and shouldn’t be taken lightly. But he’s still not Iker Casillas.
Like the rest of the Madrid team, the defence can be got at. On their day, Pepe and Sergio Ramos are two of the finest centre-backs in Europe, but they are susceptible to mistakes, specifically when dealing with aerial threats. Robin van Persie will either have a very difficult and physical game, or the Dutchman will have a field day.
But the danger men for Madrid are the obvious names. Ronaldo can score any type of goal against any type of opposition, and there is little chance the United backline will be able to contain him if he and Madrid are in full flow. But Mesut Ozil is the key for Madrid’s attack, the conductor and the genius who makes it happen for his side. It’s no surprise really that some of Real Madrid’s worst games this season have been where Ozil has either been absent or well off his game. In that 5-0 win against Valencia, Ozil made four of the five goals. And then there’s Sami Khedira, the box-to-box midfielder with plenty of fuel in reserve and the desire to play a vital role at both ends of the pitch. He will be equally as important as the other two.
This is very much a Hollywood tie no matter what circumstances it’s presented, and United will be counting on van Persie and Wayne Rooney to put forward two of their best performances this season.
But with both teams at their peak and with all guns blazing, Real Madrid are still the better side. Had the emphatic and hugely entertaining 5-0 win over Valencia not happened, Manchester United might have been more confident of advancing. But now that Real are out of the La Liga title race, their priority has been to prepare in whatever way they can for this meeting.
It’s worth noting that Real Madrid will play two Clasico matches in between both legs of the first knockout round, one in the league and the other being the second leg of the Copa del Rey. I still don’t think the whole squad at the Bernabeu is strong enough to handle the demands of a full season on three fronts, as players like Jose Callejon, Raul Albiol, Angel Di Maria and even Gonzalo Higuain either aren’t good enough or haven’t been pulling their weight.
But a win in either of those Clasicos will give Madrid plenty to be confident about. And with Ozil the key orchestrator and Ronaldo already on 33 goals in all competitions, it’s going to be a far more demanding game for United than it would have been even a month ago.