Wednesday night will reignite one of the great modern managerial battles
Real Madrid vs. Manchester United. It is rather tantalising. The entire world stops to watch matches of this magnitude. It is one of the most anticipated Champions League ties in recent memory, helped in no uncertain terms by the fact that 10 whole years have come and gone since these two footballing powerhouses last met. Whatever way it is billed, United vs. Real, Ronaldo vs. Van Persie or Ferguson vs. Mourinho, the proposition is mouthwatering, the result almost too difficult to call.
Whilst Manchester United are currently sitting pretty, 12 points clear at the top of the Premier League, Real Madrid sit third in La Liga, not only 16 points off Barcelona, but also a place below cross-town rivals Atletico Madrid. The title is long gone. Their respective seasons could not be more contrasting.
Despite this, Real Madrid remain favourites. They are still an excellent side. The Champions League is now their sole focus, and in Jose Mourinho, they have arguably the world's best knockout football tactician. He is a man with a record of getting the better of Sir Alex Ferguson on more than one occasion, with a certain run down Old Trafford's touchline in 2004 immediately springing to mind.
Mourinho is renowned for the big occasion; his career record in semifinals and finals speaks for itself. With Real Madrid though, he has hit a semifinal Champions League wall. Two seasons have come and gone with the club, and the final has yet to be made. At the third time of asking, Jose is more determined than ever.
If Manchester United are going to remain in this tie going into the second leg, they are going to have to defend flawlessly at the Bernabeu. Every battle on the pitch will be vital, every area will need to be covered. Ferguson will need to prepare his side perfectly in order to combat the threat of the mighty Real Madrid.
In a number of ways, playing Everton on Sunday was the ideal preparation for facing Real Madrid on Wednesday night, as both sides attack predominantly down the left-hand side. For Everton, the link-up play between Pienaar, Baines and Fellaini is their most dangerous source of attack. For Real Madrid, there is a similar link between Ronaldo, Ozil and Coentrao/Marcelo.
The Real Madrid trio are obviously better, and they will be far better going forward than Everton were on Sunday. It is the way Manchester United will have to defensively deal with Real Madrid's left-hand side, which will be very similar to how they dealt with Everton's.
If fit, Phil Jones will be key. He did an excellent man-marking job on Fellaini on Sunday afternoon playing on the right-hand side of United's central midfield, and his confidence will be extremely high.
Ferguson could use him again in this man-marking role, telling him to pick up either Ronaldo or Ozil. But this will be extremely tricky. Whilst he did a terrific job on Fellaini, Ronaldo and Ozil's movements are completely different to that of the big Belgian. Fellaini likes to move vertically from central midfield into a second striker role, whereas Ronaldo and Ozil both like to drift horizontally from left to centre.
So if Phil Jones is responsible for man-marking just one of the two, he will end up leaving space for the other to exploit in that zone. He will probably be instructed to mark the space in which the two Real Madrid playmakers operate.
Valencia will probably start. Despite a lack of attacking form in recent weeks, he is still an extremely reliable figure in big games. Rafael is also a shoo-in at right back. There has been a lot of hype in recent weeks about how Rafael will deal with Ronaldo, but as Ronaldo is not a standard left-winger, he will not be his sole responsibility to deal with. Rafael, Valencia and Jones will have to work in tandem to deal with the attacking threat down Real's left-hand side.
However, whilst that side of the pitch will be key, United can not afford to overload with defenders in that zone and leave the other side of the pitch with a lack of cover. Away at Spurs a few weeks ago, United put too much emphasis on defending against Bale down Spurs' left and gave too much space to Lennon down the right, who ended up assisting the equaliser. Against Everton they found a better balance; against Real they will have to do the same.
The term "midfield battle" could arguably not even apply to this game. In recent seasons, both Real Madrid and Manchester United have completely surrendered midfield in some of their big games. The question here is: Does it even count as a battle if one team is not trying to win?
Against Barcelona, Mourinho knows he can not compete in the midfield zone, sometimes going as far as to concede the area of the pitch entirely, knowing that they will be dominated. Instead, he focuses on being defensively compact and launching swift counter attacks. United have done a very similar thing in their big away games this season against the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea, and they have derived much success from the tactic.
It is expected that Jones, Carrick and Cleverley will start in central midfield. On paper, this is a midfield three that could cope well in the central zone of the pitch up against Ozil, Xabi Alonso and Khedira.
Jones, however, will mainly be preoccupied with helping Rafael and Valencia on United's right, effectively rendering it a midfield two of Carrick and Cleverley. If this is the way Ferguson sets up, it suggests that United will probably concede the battle from the off, meaning that it might not even be a battle at all (at least not a conventional one).
It is vital that Cleverley stays near to Carrick to provide a constant passing option. Carrick has had an excellent season, but Mourinho will know from experience that he can occasionally get flustered when pressed too much, and he could use Khedira and Ozil to do this. If Carrick is put under too much pressure, United will struggle to get the ball smoothly from defence to attack, cutting off the supply line to Rooney and van Persie, making potential counter attacking extremely difficult.
United can afford to defend deep and play for a draw in the first leg. Expect Real Madrid to dominate midfield and Xabi Alonso to complete the most passes in the game. If United sit deep, the Spaniard will have a decent amount of time and space on the ball. He will need to be on top of his game spreading the ball from flank to flank in an attempt to stretch United and make space for his talented attacking teammates. Ferguson will need to look at ways of preventing this.
When United last won the Champions League in 2008, Rooney would play out on the left-hand side in many of their big away games. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, as he was more defensively reliable than Ronaldo, he was more effective in that position, helping to protect Evra. Secondly, from the left-hand side, he was in a better position to drift inside and help his teammates out in midfield zones.
When Ronaldo left, Rooney became Manchester United's primary attacking threat so he started playing through the middle again in important matches. Now with Robin van Persie at the club, Ferguson might revert Rooney back to a left wing/forward role. It may not be Rooney's favoured position, but he has proven in the past he is extremely capable of playing it, and playing it well.
There is also a second option with Rooney. For many years against Chelsea, Ferguson would slant his team defensively towards Chelsea's left and give Branislav Ivanovic at right-back plenty of space on the ball, as Sir Alex did not consider the Serbian to be a genuine attacking threat (at least not from open play).
Whilst Ferguson's record against Chelsea in recent years has not always been the best, this individual tactic has actually worked pretty well. He could conceivably give Arbeloa the same amount of time and space he used to give Ivanovic. Whilst being strong defensively, Arbeloa is far from being the most convincing attacking full-back. He could leave him open and start Rooney in a more central role behind Van Persie, in an attempt to occupy Xabi Alonso.
However, there could be a problem if Ferguson does choose to use Rooney to occupy the Spaniard. Whilst United's No. 10 is famed for being an exceptionally hard-working team player, tracking a deep-lying playmaker is something at which he is not particularly excellent. This was made painfully obvious by the job (or lack thereof) he did on Pirlo for England against Italy in the quarterfinal of last summer's European Championships.
It remains to be seen how Ferguson decides to deploy Rooney. He may feel he can get Rooney to perform against Xabi Alonso in a way that Hodgson could not get him to do against Pirlo in the summer.
Other key areas—United's will pose some attacking threat
Whilst Ferguson will probably let Real Madrid dominate possession, you can still expect Manchester United to have decent spells of the game and provide some level of attacking threat throughout.
Robin van Persie faces a challenge in taking on both of Real Madrid's centre backs. He might find himself slightly isolated and may not last the full 90, depending, of course, on how the game is going. Rooney, on top of his defensive duties, will need to support him from either the left channel or the centre.
Valencia could be key. At his best, there are very few better at driving back attacking left-backs. If he finds some form, which he has been lacking of late, he could give Coentrao/Marcelo a very difficult night. Depending on whom Mourinho elects to start.
Ferguson knows the value of an away goal, and United will certainly be going for one throughout the night, but things will be kept very tight at the back. There is every possibility it could be a typical European first leg. A 0-0 wouldn't be so much of a surprise.
Madrid are favourites, but it will be close
Despite their disappointing season so far, Real Madrid are still rightfully favourites for this tie. Mourinho will be hell-bent on victory. The Portuguese manager knows he was hired for two reasons. To knock Barcelona off their mighty perch and to bring the Champions League trophy back to the Spanish capital.
Despite beating Barcelona to La Liga glory last season, the Catalans have re-asserted their domestic dominance this year. Mourinho knows that the only way to get one over their rivals this season is through Champions League glory. He will be determined to do so, and a determined Mourinho is a terrifying proposition for Ferguson and Manchester United. Ferguson will be delighted with a draw to take back to Old Trafford, even a narrow 2-1 loss wouldn't be so bad.
It has been a decade since these two European titans last met. Ten years is far too long. Despite Real Madrid's tag as favourites, I still see it as too close to call. All I know is I personally can not wait. Let the battle commence.