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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Manchester United’s acid test

Real Madrid v Manchester United
Uefa Champions League, Last 16
First leg
Santiago Bernabeu
Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Sir Alex Ferguson has called it “the acid test” for Manchester United and that sounds about right.

Tonight’s clash with Real Madrid is United’s biggest match of the season so far.

The Red Devils currently lie 12 points clear of rivals Manchester City in the English Premier League and look well on course for a 20th title.

With that being the case, the club’s obsession with the Champions League can be fully rekindled.

It has been so since that May night in 2011 when United were schooled by Barcelona on Europe’s grandest stage. Upon that 3-1 defeat in the Champions League final at Wembley, Sir Alex said his aim was to build a team to challenge, and beat, Barcelona.

The rise at home of noisy neighbours City has distracted Sir Alex somewhat, but with City out of the picture, full effort can be put into conquering Europe.

Ferguson has frequently stated United should have more than the three Champions League titles to their name. Success over Chelsea in a dramatic 2008 final gave the club a taste of wonderful possibilities after a relative barren spell. Two finals in three years followed, before last season’s group stage disaster.

Tonight’s match, then, represents the first test in Sir Alex recently under-publicised mission to knock Barcelona off their perch.

The tie against Madrid is also significant in that it represents a return to a venue which helped shape United’s last decade.

It’s now ten years since United travelled to the Bernabeu for the first leg of a Champions League quarterfinal tie in April 2003. United were thoroughly outplayed that evening and the 3-1 score-line didn’t do justice Madrid’s complete domination.
Eye on the prize
Wayne Rooney
It was a match that resulted in some soul-searching for Ferguson and would contribute in defining United’s approach over the next years

Back then, United were a team that attacked every night, home or away; the thought of a goalless United match was almost unbecoming to some. However, increasingly United became more compact and difficult to beat away from home. That certainly was a hallmark of their runs to the final in 2008 and 2009.

Other lessons came in the 2011 final defeat to Barcelona and Ferguson has been building a team since that can challenge Barca’s supremacy – with more speed, variation and a certain Mr. Robin van Persie.

Tonight’s game will be an interesting battle between two well-matched teams.

United’s record at the Bernabeu, however, is something they’ll have a tough time overcoming. Such nuances usually turn out to mean a lot.

United have never won at the Bernabeu and generally don’t have a good record against Spanish teams. Sir Alex’s side has endured past nightmares against Real Madrid, Barcelona and Deportivo La Coruna and last season were knocked out by Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League.

In their 43 all-time meetings with Spanish teams United’s record is 11 wins, 17 draws and 15 losses. Since the turn of the century it stands at 25 matches, 6 wins, 10 draws and 9 losses.

Real Madrid in turn have a pretty good record at home against English team – six wins and two draws in 12 games.
Dangerman
Cristiano Ronaldo
Madrid have the weapons to hurt United too. Their speed on attack is breathtaking and the trident of Angel Di Maria, Mesut Ozil and the irrepressible Cristiano Ronaldo is the deadliest of its kind.

Madrid have had dramas several dramas this season and lie 16 points behind Barcelona in La Liga. But that makes them even more dangerous. The Champions League is Jose Mourinho’s last major focus and all that’s happened (or not) previously this season has little bearing on tonight’s game.

United certainly haven’t faced a team with the pace and quality of Madrid in the Premiership this season. The closest instance was the first half against Tottenham at Old Trafford in September when United were overrun physically and technically.

Madrid has the capability to do that.

Although the build-up has been spicy, with Madrid newspaper Marca calling Wayne Rooney a “football player and a hooligan all rolled into one”, expect a cagey affair with few risks taken by either team.

One thing is for sure, neither side will want this match to be lost before the second leg. Only if there’s an early goal may we see the type of attacking game both managers have talked up, but even then, that’s not a guarantee.

The real fireworks will come in the second leg at Old Trafford.

Real Madrid v Manchester United Trivia

- In their most recent meeting, in 2003, Madrid beat United 6-5 on aggregate in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. Madrid won 3-1 at the Bernabeu before a 4-3 win for United in the second leg, a game remembered for Ronaldo’s hattrick

- Real Madrid’s home record against English teams reads 6 wins, 4 draws and 2 losses. United’s away record against Spanish opponents reads 2 wins, 8 draws and 10 losses

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