The draw for the knockout stages of Europe’s premier cup was not kind to any of the sides hailing from the British Isles.
Whilst Scottish champions Celtic face a tricky battle with Serie A’s top dog Juventus, Arsenal are pitted against the high-flying Bavarian outfit of Bayern Munich. Both Bayern and Juventus have been exhibiting form that would make even the mighty Barcelona turn and take note, and as such, it seems exceedingly unlikely that either of the home nation club’s will progress to the quarterfinals of this year’s competition.
There really is no justice in football!
But is this draw really as bad as it initially seems for Sir Alex’s Red Devils?
In truth, from a United point of view, the tablecloth army could not have drawn the Galacticos at a much better time.
Real are currently “languishing” in third place in La Liga. Okay, not exactly too shabby, but after winning the league last season, and with the wealth of talent they have available, one would definitely expect Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. to be challenging Barca once again for the title. As it is, they currently sit 13 points behind Tito Vilanova’s men.
In fact, rivals from across the city Athletico have been far more impressive so far during this year’s campaign than their supposedly superior rivals—despite going down to a 4-1 mauling at the hands of Barcelona this week—and are sitting four points clear of Real in second.
Sir Alex and his warriors should definitely draw hope from this. It would be an upset, but there is nothing stopping United from defying the odds once more this season and pulling off a famous victory.
So what will it take to beat the nine-time European champions in the 2012-13 season’s Group of 16?
Firstly, and without a doubt most importantly, is the necessity to keep Cristiano Ronaldo as quiet as humanly possible over both 90 minute legs. Of course, that is one heck of a lot easier said than done.
Cristiano is certainly no stranger to United fans, who enjoyed the Portuguese superstar’s talents for six seasons at Old Trafford from 2003-09. When he left the club for the plains of Spain, the void was never really filled by Sir Alex—his is an absence that still haunts the United midfield to this day.
It would be a near impossible task to expect any of United’s current midfielders to mark Ronaldo successfully for 90 minutes.
But if you can’t stop the heart of a team, cut off it’s circulation.
Mesut Ozil will no doubt be lining up as the centre point of the Real Madrid attack come kickoff time. Sometimes referred to as the “German Messi” (although let’s face it, that’s a title that has been thrown around a lot recently), Ozil has the ability to carve out lethal offensive manoeuvres from scratch.
If United want to keep Ronaldo and the rest of the Madrid front line silent, Mesut needs to be put under extreme amounts of pressure every time he is on the ball.
Obviously this is a tactic that would be well applied to any member of the Madrid attack, but it would have the greatest impact if utilised against Real’s key playmaker.
Even with this being the case, one should not expect Ronaldo to stay dormant for very long. Followers of the English game will not have to be reminded of Ronnie’s ability to single-handedly turn a game on its head, and that is a threat that any team facing off against Madrid will always have to be wary of. However, if Ozil is kept as pressured as possible, there may just be a chance.
It has been no great secret that the Manchester United defence has had a far-from-positive first half to the 2012-13 campaign. Appalling performances against teams battling to avoid relegation from the United back four have on more than one occasion led to near-humiliating results for England’s most successful club.
In fact, if it weren’t for Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Robin van Persie, United would probably be finding themselves in a similar boat to that of Liverpool at this current moment in time. With the return of key players like Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and, perhaps most important of all, Nemanja Vidic to the United defensive unit, things are starting to look up for Fergie and his boys.
If the Red Devils are to have any chance of getting one over on Jose Mourinho, the back four will have to play about three times better than they have done over the course of the season so far.
Most importantly, defending from set pieces (something that Madrid are notoriously efficient at) will have to be worked on tremendously before the first leg of the matches at the Bernabeu.
If United look to have any hopes of making it through to the quarterfinals, the cracks that have emerged since the start of the season at the back will have to be sealed up with a hearty helping of Serbian emulsion.
It goes without saying that the partnership of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney has been one of the most lethal not only in England but also across the globe this season. If those two world-class strikers can find top form over both legs, the Madrid defence (which itself has been far from assured this year) will be left shaking in its boots.
Rooney and van Persie have the talent to tear any of the world’s best defences apart this year, and their efforts have meant that United’s Premier League tally has already reached the 43-goal mark, with less than half of the regular season finished.
It’s no easy task, but if the partnership works to the level fans know it can, there is nothing to say that the two partners’ goals won't catapult United not only to victory in this particular fixture, but also to overall Champions League glory itself.
Of course the latter of those two goals is currently a distant dream.
The Red Devils need to focus heavily on getting past one of the best teams in the world first before they start to aspire to greater things. It will be no easy feat, but if football has taught us one thing over the years, it's that anything is possible!