Real Madrid arrive at Old Trafford on Tuesday night with two wins - in four days - over a Barcelona team that is often benchmarked as the best XI in the world, with a clutch of world cup winners in the side, along with the mesmerising talent of one Lionel Messi. In turn Manchester United host their Spanish visitors leading the Premier League by twelve points, and still on track for a 1999 treble repeat. And such is the balance of the tie for the return leg of this last sixteen fixture in the Champions League that both managers from part of a mutual admiration society. Albeit very eager to pull one over the other in the remaining ninety minutes for a place in the quarterfinals.
With a Cristiano Ronaldo on form this season and setting his own La Liga scoring records, it is a return to the place where he made his reputation and grew to be valued at £90 million in the summer of 2009 - when he departed Sir Alex Fergusons’ tutelage. Having scored a vital goal in the first leg, Ronaldo refused to celebrate against his former teammates and it maybe that same pressure that subdues him in the second leg. He is still very much an enigma and too often struggles on those very big occasions, failing to provide what is needed for a win. It could be Jose Mourinho's one major – yet unmentionable - fear. On the other hand, Ferguson is too wise to ignore the Madeira born striker and at the same time not become obsessed with him through the game.
For that reason it is United who have the most difficult selection choices as a one-all score line means the home team need the goal to push the tie beyond Madrid’s reach. And the same time not leave the space behind the back for Ronaldo, Di Maria and probably Benzema, to exploit and get their vital away goal - which would also push the balance against Manchester United. Although Mourinho was relaxed in the mandatory UEFA rematch press conference, it has been a season of pressure given that Barcelona have walked La Liga and Madrid have failed to match their performances - to date. However, the fact that neither party will be linked beyond the end of this season means The Special One can afford to be more relaxed. Except for that record – a third Champions League with a third club.
To do so he may need to stay with the formation that proved so effective against Barca, using defender Pepe in a midfield role, alongside Sammy Khedira and Xabi Alonso – tried in order to close down the Catalans exquisite tikka- takka. For the two games it worked and it maybe that he stays with the combination of Sergio Ramos and Rafael Varanne at the back too, given the partnership seems to be working. Having said that, Danny Wellbeck, who is sure to start on Tuesday, caused much trouble at the Santiago Bernabeu some weeks ago, and may yet haunt the Real duo given he scored the away goal. Aside from that the balance of Mourinho’s team will vary little.
For Ferguson the headache is the same given that his side waltzed four goals past Norwich City at the weekend with Kagawa getting a hat-trick, suggesting he may be hard to leave out of the starting side. Unless United have other ideas, goal scorers on form should hold their place and against tall defenders the diminutive Japanese striker seems a sure recipe for success, even up against the athletic Varanne. Mores so if playing off Robin Van Persie. If the game is to be won that it’s that last line of defence United need to breach, and if the first leg is any indication, it may prove to be the set pieces. In the middle it will be crowded and Mourinho will do a Ferguson and just close down that space for Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney, forcing them to go long from the back on more occasions.
Ferguson too needs to balance the loss of Phil Jones who so ably marked Ronaldo in the first leg.
But it is the history between these two sides that rings out loudest, with that first European Cup win in 1968 win at Wembley coming at the expense of a win over the Spanish champions in the semi – finals that year. This is only the round of the last sixteen and the script was not written for this meeting so soon. However, Borussia Dortmund performed better in the qualifying rounds and topped the group, leaving Mourinho's team playing the winners of another group - rather than runners-up. So Manchester United it proved to be, pitching these two ambitious clubs at the serious end of business earlier than either expected.
Whether it can all live up the billing is normally the issue. With so much at stake it remains to be seen.
On current form both teams are riding high and so it is a close call, with margins dictating the outcome no doubt. Having said that, Real Madrid arrive with more momentum than at any other time, and so late into the season counts more for any potential Champions League winners. Also, Jose knows it's all about his wits and mind-set, particularly in England, where he hopes to be gainfully employed next season. So no better shop window than playing United at Old Trafford in a "winner takes all" type fixture – which no doubt the works too for a number of club that maybe watching on with interest. Even if the rumour suggests that Stamford Bridge is the next port of call.
A win tonight though gives either manager a moment of glory; such is the calibre of each one’s achievements and their tactical ability. In Europe though Mourinho has the upper hand and in lesser games Ferguson has been caught out in the Champions League at times. It might be the case of the same again as former Premier League players Alonso, Arbeloa and Ronaldo – along with Michael Essien and Luka Modric – will set out to prove a point.
History also suggests a Real victory – but marginally.
-The two previous Champions League encounters between Manchester United and Real Madrid at Old Trafford have produced 12 goals.
- Cristiano Ronaldo has scored seven goals in 23 Champions League games at Old Trafford. He has 16 goals in 18 European games at the Santiago Bernabeu.
- Angel Di Maria has four assists in the competition this season, all coming against Manchester teams - three against City and one against United.
- Real Madrid are one of two Spanish teams to have beaten Manchester United at Old Trafford in the Champions League. Deportivo La Coruna won 3-2 back in April 2000.
- Jose Mourinho has never won a Champions League game at Old Trafford. Porto`s progress was built on a 1-1 draw while Inter lost 2-0 at United in 2008-09.
- On the two occasions the Real Madrid boss has won the Champions League, his teams have knocked out English opposition in the last 16.
- United have managed only two clean sheets in their last 10 home Champions League games.
- Alex Ferguson has only won twice in his 15 competitive encounters with Jose Mourinho.