For all the attention grabbed by Manchester City in recent seasons there is still something compellingly attractive attached to a crunch European night against one of the continent’s giants – the clichéd European atmosphere under the lights and a departure from the hustled norm of the Premier league that has enduring appeal.
Not only does European football remain an irresistible product, but also genuine test of Manchester United’s place in world football – a team that few predicted could challenge on all fronts this season, but one that is outperforming all at home and abroad.
Indeed, Manchester United’s trip to Santiago Bernabéu to face Real Madrid on Wednesday night is, as Sir Alex Ferguson described it on Tuesday, the “acid test” of his team’s status. A test not only of United’s ability to compete against Europe’s best, but the Reds’ mental strength in what is likely to be a hugely pressurised atmosphere.
And while neither side is European Champion, and Madrid likely to acquiesce domestic hegemony this season, the are few who will reject the idea that United’s fixture with Madrid is not only the competition’s premier tie to date, but a clash between the world’s two most recognisable football clubs.
Yet, for all the perceived glamour United play in Madrid for the first time in almost a decade, with memories of a chastening 3-1 defeat at the Bernabéu in 2003 still fresh. Ferguson’s side triumphed in the return, only for Brazilian striker Ronaldo’s hat-trick at Old Trafford to prove decisive for Los Merengues.
Four years earlier and Real, sporting a teenage Ilker Cassilas and 22-year-old striker Raul, knocked the European champions out of the competition with a 3-2 victory at Old Trafford. On both occasions United had approached the opening leg in Madrid tentatively; on neither did Ferguson’s side progress, despite being widely regarded as favourites.
Once again United will start the double-header with Madrid in good form, although few pundits will assume Ferguson’s side is a banker for the tie despite Real’s damaging dressing-room politics. Once again one of Spain’s giants is inserted between Ferguson’s outfit and continental glory – and it hasn’t turned out well for the Scot in recent times.
Still, Ferguson remains defiant ahead of the match, with 71-year-old insistent this year’s United vintage is as good as any of his previous.
“Our team is capable of winning the Champions League,” said Sir Alex in Madrid on Tuesday.
“There is a great spirit about the players. People keep saying we’re not as good as past United teams but sometimes we get foggy impressions about the past and I do so myself at times. The reality is this team doesn’t know when it’s beaten which is a great quality. The acid test is tomorrow and we have to get through it if we are to win this trophy.”
Mourinho’s outfit begins the tie in decent form after hammering Sevilla 4-1 in Madrid last weekend. Cristiano Ronaldo’s 20th hat-trick during four productive years in Spain secured victory as the Spanish Champions cruised home more than 24 hours ahead of United’s weekend victory over Everton.
Fine form perhaps, and an additional rest for sure, yet dressing-room politics and a 16 point La Liga gap to Barcelona mean that this is likely to be the last campaign in which Mourinho commands the Spaniards. By contrast, Ferguson’s outfit travels not only in good form, having dispatched Everton last weekend, but amid a run of 14 matches without defeat since CFR Cluj emerged victorious from a dead-rubber group match last December.
“I think it’s a good time for us to be playing Real Madrid,” said Sir Alex.
“We have a fantastic lead in our league and we have everyone fit. When you come to this part of the season you [usually] have two or three players injured. We don’t have that, which is a bonus. We’re ready for tomorrow. Since the Champions League started, almost every year we have played one of the biggest clubs in the world.
“When I started as a coach many years ago, I dreamt I’d be playing against the top teams as a manager and you get the opportunity to do that in the Champions League on a regular basis. There is a special significance when you play the big teams and you’ll see that tomorrow. It’s just a shame we and Real are meeting this early. I wish it had been at Wembley, in the final.”
Jones may be asked to mark Ronaldo, while Rooney will make up a five-man midfield. Elsewhere, Ferguson will choose between Rio Ferdinand and captain Nemanja Vidić in defence, while Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley should start in central midfield. Paul Scholes is the only absent through injury and did not travel.
Formations aside, Ferguson may ask his players to take a less expansive approach than has become the norm this season, with the Reds seeking to hit Real on the break while soaking up Spanish pressure.
It is, after all, Real’s ability to counter-attack at pace that will be Ferguson’s principle concern. Madrid’s rapid transition from defence to attack, using Ronaldo’s pace and tendency to create space from broken play, remains the over-riding threat to the Reds’ progression.
“It won’t be 0-0 tomorrow night, I can assure you of that,” promised Ferguson, despite the likelihood of United deploying a conservative approach.
“This match can live up to expectations. History always plays a part in this type of game, as does the two teams’ desire to go forward. Real Madrid are one of the best counter-attacking teams in Europe. Their speed from box to box is fantastic. But we have to play our own game too. Our intention is to win and to score.”
Meanwhile, Mourninho remains under pressure to deliver a 10th European Cup to the Spanish capital. The imminent loss of last season’s hegemony to a resurgent Barcelona ensures that Real’s focus is squarely on Europe where Los Merengues boast a record of eight victories from the past nine home matches.
“It won’t be a disaster if we don’t win the Champions League,” said the former Chelsea coach.
“There are some great teams and coaches who never won it. Real Madrid want to win their tenth title and I want to win my third. I don’t want to finish my career with two.”
It is a sentiment with which Ferguson can agree. One will certainly be disappointed over the next three weeks of football.
Real Madrid v Manchester United – Champions League, Santiago Bernabéu – 7.45pm, 13 February 2013
Real (4-2-1-3): Lopez; Arbeloa, Pepe, Ramos, Coentrão; Alonso, Khedeira; Ozil; Di Maria, Benzema, Ronaldo; Subs from: Adán, Fernández, Varane, Rodríguez, Essien, Modrić, Callejón, Kaká, Morata, Higuaín.
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Jones, Cleverley, Carrick, Rooney; van persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Vidić, Büttner, Anderson, Nani, Kagawa, Young , van Persie, Hernández, Giggs, Welbeck.
Match officials (GER)
Referee: Felix Brych
Assistant referees: Mark Borsch, Stefan Lupp
Additional assistant referees: Marco Fritz, Tobias Welz
Fourth official: Thorsten Schiffner
Real Madrid: WDWDLW
Head to Head
Last 10: Real 3, United 2, Draw 3
Overall: Real 3, United 2, Draw 3