Wednesday's match at the Bernebeu is a fixture that I have been waiting for, ever since my early days as a football fan. The spotlight will be on Cristiano Ronaldo as he faces the team that he once called home (and he often still does). Here’s a pre-match analysis:
The first leg will see Sir Alex using his typical Champions League knockout stage defensive lineup and formation. On the contrary, Mourinho will be looking to take full advantage of playing at home and put on a fairly offensive lineup. I expect to see the typical four of Arbeloa, Pepe (who was recently declared fit), Sergio Ramos, and Fabio Coentrao.
The midfield will consist of Sami Khedira in the holding position and Xabi Alonso slightly ahead of him. In front of the holding duo will be Ozil in the center-attacking role, with Di Maria on the right and Ronaldo on the left. Newly acquired Diego Lopez will get the start between the posts, and Karim Benzema will be the sole striker in the 4-2-3-1.
For United, I expect De Gea to get the start, even though he has been looking rather unconfident as of late (or maybe even since his move to United). The back line, which has improved recently, will consist of Rafael at right-back, Chris Smalling and Nemanja Vidic as the central defensive pairing, and of course Evra on the left.
It would be a good sight for United to see Phil Jones in one of those central places, but after his injury at Everton, it looks rather unlikely. In midfield is where Ferguson will have to make his toughest decisions, particularly on the flank where he’ll have to decide how to deal with a player who was once his.
I expect Antonio Valencia to get the start on the right, and he’ll be teaming up with Rafael to try and shackle Ronaldo. It's difficult to imagine that Ferguson will opt for two center forwards in this one, so I will say Carrick and Scholes will play in the central midfield. Shinji Kagawa, who started the season brightly for United but has dimmed as of late, will get the start on the left.
Who will win on Wednesday at the Bernebeu?
Leading the attack will be Van Persie with Rooney sitting deeper (sort of a 4-4-1-1). Rooney will be doing a lot more defending than attacking in that spot.
Like the match against Manchester City earlier in the group stages, Real Madrid will find themselves with most of the ball, and United will sit back, waiting for their opportunity to counterattack. Rafael and Valencia will struggle to handle Ronaldo’s runs.
Paul Scholes, as good as he’s been in the Premier League, will not match the quality of Xabi Alonso. Ozil will find himself with more and more space as the game progresses. United will also have to worry about Khedira bombing forward into the penalty area.
Van Persie will be rather isolated up front (sort of like when he was with Arsenal when they played Barcelona in the CL). However, if United are to score at the Bernebeu, you can bet that Van Persie will be the one to do it.
The best possible result for United in the first leg of this tie will be a draw, and it would really surprise me if they achieved that. Manchester United is a side built to win the Premier League, but I don’t think they can compete with the big boys of Europe.