Sir Alex & the "Chosen One"
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.
Real Madrid had a pretty wretched December before they scraped past Real Sociedad in early January. Since then they have scored 20 goals in seven matches, conceding only one.
That doesn't necessarily have any bearing on the two legs against United, because there will be a number of specific questions to answer.
How did they set up in the group stage?
Their tactical shape was 4-2-3-1 and the selections were mainly determined by available personnel, together with the strength of the opposition. By the time they played the final match against Ajax, Mourinho could afford to give some of his B players a run-out.
Interestingly, Kaka played in both the Ajax matches. He is not likely to feature against United.
So it looks like Real Madrid's strongest team would be:
Arbeloa Ramos Pepe Marcelo
Di Maria Ozil Ronaldo
While this was the strongest line-up distilled from the group stages, it will partly depend on who is fit and who is in form.
Michael Essien was in the centre of the attacking three against Manchester City. He is unlikely to feature against United unless Real have a lead to defend at Old Trafford.
Modric is an alternate to Khedira in the "defensive" duo.
Adan may feature in goal, but former player Lopez is the more experienced. Pepe is the only other doubt at the moment as he recovers from a foot operation. He is expected back in early February, but would he be risked in such a match?
Manchester United Barcelona 2011
It is arguable that Sir Alex got his tactics wrong against Barcelona in both the 2009 and 2011 finals.
In the first, they notionally set up as a 4-3-2-1 but became, to all intents and purposes 4-5-1 as Barca got on top.
In 2011 the shape was more like 4-4-1-1 but the same thing happened as Barca eventually overran the United midfield.
Michael Carrick is routinely assigned the blame in both matches, despite the fact that he was being asked to play a defensive midfield role against the two best midfielders and the best goalscorer in the world.
It is significant that Paul Scholes started neither match and it is to be hoped that the same thing happens in the two Real Madrid ties. His technical skill is there but he plays too deep in general and United do better pressing in the opposition half.
This is what Dortmund were able to do very successfully in the group stages this season, including two matches against Real Madrid where they had the upper hand.
Sir Alex can learn much from those two matches. In the last couple of months they have been very successful when they press in that way, as the brushing aside of Fulham showed even without Robin van Persie.
Other pointers from the 2011 campaign
2010/11 was also the last time United have qualified for the knockout stages, so apart from the final against Barcelona, we can get some useful pointers from the later stages against Marseille, Chelsea and Schalke.
Many of the personnel from the two losing finals and the later stages in 2010/11 are still in contention this year. While Van der Sar, Ronaldo and Park have gone and Fabio is on loan, the team that sets up against Real Madrid may not be entirely different.
United played all their first legs away that season, which also gives us a useful steer.
Against Chelsea and Schalke, arguably the toughest matches, they played with Javier Hernandez as a lone striker but a key player was Ji-Sung Park, notionally playing wide on the left but very much part of the midfield holding and defence.
In all the matches mentioned, the centre back pairing was Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. Ryan Giggs played in central midfield alongside Carrick.
What happened in the home legs?
Obviously it would be great to get a win in the Bernabeu. In 2011 United didn't lose their away legs, winning against both Chelsea and Schalke.
They did, however, get only a 0-0 draw against Marseille. While they would certainly settle for that against Real, a win might change their whole approach.
In the home leg United played more of a 4-4-1-1, with Scholes and Carrick in central midfield, Rooney and Hernandez ahead of them and Giggs and Nani on the wings.
Giggs' defensive capabilities should not be under-estimated here and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that he will get a berth in the away leg against Real Madrid, after his showings in the FA and Capital One Cups this season.
While United may often look like they set up as a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 at home, in reality this can flex from 4-2-3-1 to 4-5-1 as needed. In the 2010/11 campaign Sir Alex made much use of Hernandez's ability to be an outlet with his pace, together with his poaching ability.
Against Chelsea he played pretty much the same formation he usually uses in league matches, able to defend in depth and break in numbers.
As it turned out against Schalke he played almost a scratch team with neither Ferdinand nor Vidic and with Darron Gibson in midfield. United won the semi-final at a canter.
And this season?
There are few pointers because of the poorer quality of the opposition so far, but Sir Alex has been experimenting with personnel in both the Premier and Champions' League.. There has been a growing suspicion that he has been augmenting the squad and trying formations that will work in the knockout stages and against Barcelona.
We have seen the notorious "diamond" which many people feel does not play to United's strengths, even if it does give strength in midfield. The risk also is that it can expose Patrice Evra. Luckily he is not on Ronaldo's side of the pitch, but Di Maria should give him nightmares.
While United traditionally play a 4-4-2 at home or 4-4-1-1, it will inevitably depend on the strength of the opposition and what result they have got in the first leg.
The most likely formation appears to be 4-2-3-1 because this gets the best out of United's much greater fluidity and interchange of positions that have been their hallmark this season.
Many pundits will see defence as a potential problem, but this seems less likely for three main reasons: Sir Alex seems to have solved the midfield conundrum; there is less aerial threat in Europe; and Robin van Persie gives them a world class striker to occupy the opposition.
Ronaldo & Rooney
It seems likely that Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo will be key in both legs.
Ronaldo for obvious reasons is Real Madrid's most important player. If he is on form they will be hard to beat. The only consolation is that Sir Alex and his defence know his game. That doesn't mean they will be able to stop him.
However, it is likely that neither he nor whoever plays striker will give much support to defence.
Assuming that Real Madrid play their strongest team as outlined earlier, the most likely United team for the away leg (depending on Evans' fitness) would appear to be:
Jones Ferdinand Vidic Evra
Young Rooney Giggs
With Lindegaard, Rafael, Smalling or Evans, Anderson, Valencia, Kagawa and Hernandez on the bench.
The trouble is that there is a sneaking feeling Sir Alex was using the Spurs match as a "dry run" for the Madrid away leg. If that is the case United would line up as:
Rafael Ferdinand Vidic Evra
Carrick Jones Cleverley
Young (for Welbeck) Van Persie Rooney (for Kagawa)
It is to be hoped that neither this nor a variation dressed up as a diamond is the order of the day. While it nearly worked, it gifted Spurs most of the possession and United were under siege for most of the second period as they defended in their own half.
Khedira and Alonso are a very strong foundation for the Real Madrid team and they have world class players all across the park, United's greater fluency with our chosen line-up together with its defensive qualities could at least force a draw.
With Van Persie around, it could even be a score draw, taking a result back to Old Trafford which would require Real Madrid to come out and play.
Our line-up uses Young to double up with Jones in dealing with the Marcelo/Ronaldo threat. On the other flank Giggs' defensive qualities will also be needed to help Evra handle Angel Di Maria.
Robin van Persie
The weather could yet be a factor, but it must be recognised that Real Madrid at their best bring a significantly bigger threat than Benfica or Bilbao did to Old Trafford.
And we all know what happened there. United were pretty much overrun.
OK, so there is no Roy Keane or Kevin Strootman, but as Dortmund showed, it is about tactics, formations and work rate rather than just one player.
Yes Ronaldo can produce a rabbit out of the hat. But he can also get very frustrated. And there is the whole question of whether there is disunity in the Real Madrid ranks.
Once again the shape and personnel in the second leg will very much be determined by the result from the first. If United were to bring back a two goal advantage, for example, then Van Persie might even start on the bench, with Hernandez as a lone striker.
In that case the formation might be much the same as the first leg but the personnel could be:
Rafael Vidic Evans Evra
Young Rooney Giggs
If United bring a slender lead they need a better balance between attack and defence, such as:
Welbeck Van Persie
as the front six in the dreaded "diamond."
And finally, if they have to get a win you can expect something like:
Rooney Van Persie Kagawa
One player emerges as key and that is Wayne Rooney. He is clearly getting back towards his best form and fitness. He could and should have had at least a hat-trick against Fulham. His forward run was wrongly given as offside and his clinical finish for his goal shows his sharpness is back.
There are several factors he brings into the equation.
He links up well with and understands Robin Van Persie. He also provides an excellent link from midfield to attack. He covers the ground and brings important defensive qualities (as long as he doesn't lose the man he's supposed to be marking as he did on Saturday).
His, Michael Carrick's and Tom Cleverley's work-rate are important too. Cleverley and Carrick may be unspectacular much of the time but they cover every blade of grass and they have formed a winning partnership for the future.
Assault with Intent
Manchester United have the playing staff and the capability of murdering even the best footballing sides at Old Trafford.
Even in March, Real Madrid will not relish a trip to Manchester.
However it is possible to score goals against them. Sociedad and Malaga have both scored three in the last month or so, but you have to go back to Barcelona last season to find a Real "stuffing."
It does of course depend on who and how they turn up on the day. If there is internal disagreement then scoring against them in Madrid might either open up that sore or at the very least get them to open up, leaving gaps at the back.
That is of course also when they are at their most dangerous with attacking power across the park.
So when we talk about "putting them to the sword" we mean in the context of St George's desperate battle against the dragon. One emerges as victor but exhausted.
Even a one goal overall defeat by United would feel like a humiliation for Mourinho and his men at this stage of the competition.
And the "Special One" might pay with his job.