by Liam McConville
A few weeks ago, Sky Sports dubbed the first leg of the Manchester United and Real Madrid last sixteen tie as ‘the perfect match.’ The glossy, hyperbolic advert also declared that Mourinho and Ferguson were ‘masters of the minefield.’ Now, while this makes a game of football sound more like a documentary celebrating great military generals on the History channel, the basic premise was correct, truly this was a tie to savour.
The first leg proved to be a tense game of feeling each other out. United took the lead before being pegged back by Cristiano Ronaldo with a superb hanging header. Ferguson’s side had chances to really hurt Real, but Robin Van Persie most notably, squandered opportunities to leave the tie finely poised at 1-1.
Quietly, both sides will have been satisfied with that scoreline. United came away with an away goal, and with the prospect of a vociferous Old Trafford crowd behind them, could claim to be in the ascendency. Madrid will have been a little bit frustrated at not being able to get a home win, however with the players at Mourinho’s disposal and the Portuguese’s enviable European record, will be quietly confident that they too have a strong chance of qualifying.
Both teams have had a good few weeks since the first leg. United have continued on their serene path towards a twentieth title, whilst also progressing through the FA Cup, making the treble increasingly a possibility. Madrid meanwhile have beaten Barcelona twice in the last week, including humbling their great rivals in their own backyard to reach the Copa del Rey final. You’re unlikely to find a better morale boosting victory than a crushing win in the Camp Nou, Madrid are looking dangerous once more, even if the hopes of defending their league title are long gone.
Questions keep getting raised over how good United are, indeed it has become a cliché just to say that this is just an ‘average United side.’ This is clearly nonsense, United last tasted defeat in December, in a game against Cluj in the Champions League where United rested several players after already qualifying. United have seventy-one points from twenty eight league games and look likely to break the ninety point barrier. I can’t think of many average teams that could do that.
That is of course not to disregard United’s fallacies. However many of the issues that were prominent earlier in the season are disappearing. David De Gea is becoming an increasingly assured presence, no doubt being helped by the rotation of the keeper spot becoming more infrequent. Michael Carrick is putting to an end the tedious debate of whether he’s any good or not with a string of impressive performances. While there are still questions about the United defence, a run of four consecutive clean sheets in the league shows that progress is being made.
The biggest danger for United will be trying to take the initiative. Real have struggled this season against weaker sides in La Liga where the onus has been on them to take control. However as shown at the Camp Nou and on numerous occasions under Mourinho, Madrid can be terrifying on the counter. The first goal will be hugely important. Should Real get it, they will eradicate United’s away goal and force them to attack, playing straight into their hands. If United score first, they could really show how good they are and beat a very strong Madrid side.
At the risk of buying into the hype surrounding the game, this could be a defining match for both sides. The winner of this tie may well be favourites for the tournament, especially with Barcelona having a mountain to climb against Milan. It’s too close to call for me, the only thing to do is to sit back and enjoy.