How Manchester United Should Set Up to Put Real Madrid to the Sword

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How Manchester United Should Set Up to Put Real Madrid to the Sword
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Sir Alex & the "Chosen One"

In some ways the Manchester United vs. Real Madrid tie is one of the biggest challenges Sir Alex Ferguson has faced in years.

As he moves towards the end of his time at United over the next year or three, he will be desperate to win at least one more Champions League final.

It seems somewhat bizarre that some people still imply that this is one of his weaker teams, even though the squad has real depth. What does it take to please demanding journalists when United have accrued their highest number of Premier League points ever at this stage of the season?

When you are talking about the greatest British football club ever, presumably there is always something to criticise. Not everybody is a United fan and it must stick in the throat that they remain so successful while other illustrious peers fall by the wayside.

So every match and every tie is a potential banana skin. It's pretty much the same for us United fans as well. When you win almost everything there is always an element of fear before sitting down to watch any match. Even the first goal cannot appease that with the club's defensive record this season.

And many critics will light on the goals against statistic as United's Achilles heel. In the Premier League alone, they have conceded only seven less goals than QPR at the bottom of the table.

Now here is an odd paradox. Fans and commentators alike want to see more entertaining football, but constantly hark on about United's goals conceded. 

Then they get a clean sheet and The Daily Mail says:

"...doubts remain about this United side being the stuff champions are made of."

No doubt Bill Shankly would be turning in his grave. And would the neutrals rather watch a tight 1-0 win or 4-3 against Reading? Let's hope we get more of that in the FA Cup fifth Round.

So there will be a growing army of people who reckon that United will be going like lambs to the slaughter against Real Madrid and Sir Alex's nemesis, Jose Mourinho.

The people who remember bitterly Michael Carrick being challenged twice by Barcelona (and overlooking Sir Alex getting his tactics wrong twice), but not gracious enough to acknowledge his pivotal contribution to the present season.

So they'll be lining up their belief as to how Carrick and his colleagues will lose to an "awesome" Real Madrid while conveniently ignoring the Spanish club's footballing and internal collapse in the last five months.

Of course players can raise their game for the big matches. So what happened to City and Chelsea in the Champions League? And how come Real Madrid languish in third place in La Liga, 15 points behind Barcelona?

The big question is, with the internal battles and divisions and all the rumours about Mourinho, can the manager and his team get their act together for two matches against another, better Manchester team who will be fired up like never before?

And for those players and supporters who would like to see the back of Mourinho, what effect will rumours like this have on their performance?

Or a captain with a broken hand?

In considering how Manchester United will set up for these "must-watch" matches we need to look at each match on its own and also how Real Madrid are likely to set up.

Predicting the line-ups Sir Alex will choose is like "pinning the tail on the donkey". Sometimes you might as well use a pin. Jose Mourinho is easier to second-guess, but he has some of the best players in the world at his disposal.

These two matches alone will motivate Mourinho more than any in a while: partly because of the state he finds himself in with his team; and partly because he is up against his old rival. The fact that he has got the drop on Sir Alex in the past will make little difference.

It's a bit like the best way to play golf, one shot at a time. That's the way the best managers like Sir Alex and "the Special One" play it: one game at a time.

Of course Sir Alex will have had every recent Real Madrid match analysed, including all their Champions League matches. But his preferred approach is to prepare specific dossiers and videos for each player, so that they are clear on their role.

The great Liverpool teams didn't study their opponents, they simply imposed their own playing style on the opposition. United have done that in the past but it is harder to do in the modern Opta and high-tech era of football coaching.

United will have a nearly fully-fit squad to draw from. They will set up differently between the two legs, even though Sir Alex always plays to win (except against Spurs?).

They have the advantage of the home tie coming second and their approach to the away leg will be no different to the past. The team will set up to keep it tight but with the flair to get at least one away goal. The result of that leg could help determine the set-up for the reverse fixture.

But it all starts by second-guessing Mourinho and how Real Madrid may approach the tie.

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