The upcoming games against Real Madrid are a big deal. They must be, because I can’t get them out of my mind. I have more important things to worry about, like a pregnant wife and an impending house purchase. But still my mind frequently drifts towards the Santiago Bernabeu this Wednesday. I was watching Band of Brothers last night (ten years too late), but rather than concentrating on the harrowing plight of Easy Company, I was stressing about the possibility of Cristiano Ronaldo running at Rio Ferdinand.
Ten years is a long time. A lot can change in ten years. For me personally, I had a long head of flowing luxurious hair. I was studying a wonderful fraud of a university degree. I had no allotted bed time. I was dating a glamorous medical student who was going to fund my playboy lifestyle forever. Life was easy. I was untouchable.
Similarly, Manchester United were churning out league titles at the same rate as summer pre-season tours to the USA. Roy Keane was still the midfield lynchpin who made me feel safe. The team had a swagger and cocky knowledge that they were the best team in England. The Champions League was ticking along nicely, with a glamorous Quarter Final against Real Madrid on the horizon. Football was great. United were the dog’s tackle.
All of a sudden, my perfect life came crashing down around me. The tell-tale signs were there with my medical lover: constant grumblings about my time-keeping; frequent remarks like “I wish you were a doctor too”. But I was cruising, she would never push me aside. Then the first serious rival came along to compete, and I was out faster than Wayne Rooney to a local watering hole’s drinks promotion. I’ve always hated doctors, they make me sick.
At least I had football, it had been kind to me. So to raise my spirits, I sat down to watch United’s first leg against Madrid. Sir Alex had his best ever team, with the perfect midfield combo of Keane and Scholes, the pace and skill of Giggs and the delivery of Beckham, aligned with the world’s greatest goal scorer, Ruud Van Nistelrooy. Juan Veron was even there if necessary. Madrid were a team of Glacticos, world superstars who, I told myself, didn’t have the unity and spirit of this United team. Spoilt brats versus United warriors could only lead to sweet victory.
The first leg was like watching the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. Real Madrid tore United apart. Fat Ronaldo, Figo, Zidane and Raul punished my optimism like I was a horse, and they were a Tesco meat grinder. Poor Wes Brown was… well, he was poor Wes Brown. Defensive frailties were exposed, United treated the ball like an unwelcome stranger. Real had so many great players, United couldn’t live with them. The Manchester United superstars I had up on a pedestal hit the ground with a thump. The second leg was an improvement, enjoyable even, but truthfully Real were well and truly through with their cigars out by the time Beckham came off the bench to score a couple of conciliatory goals.
I’d been burned before. United also got beaten in 1999/00 Champions League Quarter Final by what, in my innocent mind, was a Real Madrid team there to make up the numbers, especially after securing a Mark Bosnich (!) inspired 0-0 draw in the first leg. Turned out the likes of Raul and Fernando Redondo were actually rather good when they won 3-2 at Old Trafford.
Fast forward ten years to the present day. United are pleasantly cruising to success in their domestic league, whilst Madrid are having a wretched campaign. Team spirit at United is undeniably high, with an obvious bond between the players, evidenced in all the rousing comeback victories so far this season. In contrast, Real are in the midst of a civil war, with Mourinho unloved by the fans, at major odds with his (albeit injured) goalkeeper, and almost certain to leave come the end of the season.
So what do the bookies make of this tantalising tie? They have ignored these key point indicators, and make Madrid not just the favourites to progress, but comfortable favourites. It’s honestly not in my nature to be pessimistic, but I can’t help agreeing with the money hungry speculators. I hope I’m wrong, my mind is in turmoil, but the rational side of my brain makes a fairly compelling argument. There are several issues that worry it:
Cristiano Ronaldo. I never liked him, even when he played for United. That is a mad thing to say because he’s one of the greatest players in the history of the club. I couldn’t get past his character. He was, and still is, overly theatrical, petulant, and incredibly self-indulgent. He was ‘too good’ for working hard, tracking back, and keeping the team’s shape. That doesn’t change the fact that he is on a different planet to any other individual in terms of athleticism, skill, and ruthlessness in front of goal. I’m scared what he can do to our back four. Gary Neville was quoted yesterday as saying “Ronaldo is a bully. He bullies the weakest defender. He does it all the time”. We have all seen this season that this is a United defence that, despite recent improvement, can be bullied by this ridiculously talented player. Neville knows that more than anyone. I don’t want to keep on making analogies with my love life, but Gary Neville scored about as many times in his playing career as I did in my romantic career. So obviously I’m more drawn to the likes of him than a Bronzed Adonis like Ronaldo, whose love life is sickeningly even more successful than his legendary football career.
It looks fairly certain that Sir Alex will start with Phil Jones shielding the defence, in a similar approach to how the side quite effectively shackled Gareth Bale at White Hart Lane recently. It would be easier to double up on him if he didn’t roam all over the pitch. It will take a concerted defensive effort to keep him quiet.
If that were the only issue it wouldn’t be so bad. The other fact that worries me is that Madrid have better players than United. Keep Ronaldo quiet, and you still have to contain the likes of Ozil, Benzema, Di Maria and Higuain. They may even decide to send on Kaka or Modric from the bench! If they all click, and remember these games are now the sole focus of their season, then they will be absolutely fierce.
Finally, the tactics of the two legs are also a cause for concern. In the biggest tests so far this season, against Chelsea and Manchester City, United have thrown caution to the wind with a ‘we’ll score more than you’ approach, which has been great to watch and, up to now, successful. If United go away to Madrid and play in the same way, then, to use a local colloquialism, they’re toast. I doubt that there is a better counter-attacking side in the world than Real Madrid. They possess blistering pace, they know the quickest route to goal, and they are capable of absorbing pressure. I have little doubt that United will score against them in both legs, it’s scoring more than them I’m worried about. In previous seasons in Europe, and in the bigger Premier League games, Ferguson has played disciplined, controlled football. I believe that the path to success may be to follow a template like the one that defeated Barcelona in 2008.
Ferguson now seems to lean towards the fluid, dynamic rotation of attacking players. A system pioneered, ironically, to accommodate Cristiano Ronaldo. He was allowed to wander, to find space, and his attacking colleagues were encouraged to follow suit. As Neville says “He just decided his own position, which was based upon where the space was and who was the weak link. He made me realise you didn’t always need to be in your shape”. United have kept this up, with Rooney, van Persie, Welbeck, Nani and the rest popping up all over the pitch during the course of a game. It worries me that, unless some tactical rigidity is employed to force Real to push forward, they could put us to the sword with their sleek counter attacking. Hopefully Madrid can receive a taste of their own medicine.
The ‘Mourinho Factor’ also concerns me. He seems to hold a bit of a hoodoo over Ferguson, and boasts a much-superior win-loss record from their previous meetings. He has been in attendance a few times at Old Trafford, running the rule over this current United side. As unpopular as he currently is in the Spanish capital, the man gets results. He will have analysed United in intricate detail, and his talented group will have a solid game plan. The thought of his smug, self-congratulatory grin after a Madrid victory would be hard to take, but not difficult to envisage.
However, I don’t want to be all doom and gloom. You see, Manchester United can win this game. The away leg is absolutely crucial, as if they are chasing the game at home, they could get carved open just like ten years ago. The defence is where this tie will be won and lost. Vidic and Ferdinand playing deep, with a disciplined five man midfield, with Rooney playing wide and van Persie up top, might just be a formula to get a result. They must work harder, be more physical, and be more disciplined. It wouldn’t lead to the classic everyone is hoping for, but personally, I’d take any kind of victory. If the rational side of my brain isn’t careful, I’m going to punch it. That would teach it for being so anti-United. These games are going to be magnificent occasions, the whole footballing world will be watching. I suppose I should just try to enjoy it. Come on you Reds!