As good as Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney have been this year, the Red Devils' key for success in their must-win match is in fact their defense. Given the success that the Spanish powerhouse have had in attack so far this year, it's actually quite understandable.
Yet for United, that represents a real challenge.
The Red Devils were bombarded with attacking chances throughout the first leg, and had it not been for the brilliance of David De Gea, they would surely have lost that match. In fact, given their defensive frailties throughout the season so far, their defense could be perceived as more of a weakness than a strength.
But against Madrid, their defense will be a strength—as long as they can set themselves up properly to deal with the various threats that Madrid will bring.
United have conceded just three goals in their past nine matches to date—showing that their defense is in very good form, and that they can handle Los Blancos here. As long as they set themselves up in the best way available to handle the attacking strengths of Madrid.
As far as starting team goes, expect the usual back four that have been very strong throughout the season to be used here, with captain Nemanja Vidic involved.
Patrice Evra is a lock on the left flank to cover Angel Di Maria; Vidic and Rio Ferdinand in the middle to handle Karim Benzema and Mesut Ozil; and Rafael Da Silva drawing the difficult challenge of stopping superstar winger Cristiano Ronaldo out on the right flank.
Vidic's leadership and experience will be more valuable here than Jonny Evans, who would still be more than able to handle himself here if he plays. There's just something about having your captain on the field for the biggest game of the year that suggests that Vidic is a lock to play.
The biggest question then becomes, with that back four set, what assistance Rafael Da Silva will get out on the right flank with Ronaldo looming.
In the first leg, Phil Jones was deployed in the middle as a man-marker of Ronaldo in a way, and United had great success in doing that. However, due to injury, Jones will be unavailable to play on Ronaldo and cover him when he cuts inside Rafael.
Two options then seemingly emerge for United—try and find a replacement for Jones, or play the regulation 4-2-3-1 and try to find ways to deal with Ronaldo.
The first option would likely see Jonny Evans deployed in Jones' role, and whilst he would be good, it's hard to see him having the same kind of success as the latter. Jones is a regulation defensive midfielder whilst Evans is a defender first and foremost, and whilst he would be strong, it's not the kind of risk that you wanted to be taking heading into the biggest game of the year.
It just doesn't seem very Sir Alex Ferguson-ish.
Thus the second option of working in the 4-2-3-1 seems more likely.
Rafael will pick up Ronaldo first and foremost out at right back, but United will then simply have to use their central midfielders in Tom Cleverley, Ryan Giggs or Michael Carrick to track back and help out Ferdinand and Vidic in central defense. Obviously it's not ideal, but it seems like the only logical move that United can make given the injury to Jones.
And it seems that Ferguson is leaning a similar way, in comments he made to The Telegraph earlier in the week about how United will be setting up:
Hopefully the experience young Rafael had in the first-half in the first leg will help him. He will be given the same task, but I don’t think it’s one he should fear. Jones’s performance over there was excellent so he is a miss, but we can’t deem it as something that we can’t manage. We have options and I hope we get that right.
We know our strengths and how we want to play. We know how to go about these games and hopefully it helps us...
Thus with a more regulation-looking team against Madrid, United's defenders will certainly need to be playing to their absolute best if they want to win here.
Responsibility regarding Ronaldo also lies heavily on right winger Antonio Valencia, whose defensive skills make him an under-the-radar factor to watch here.
Expect to see him dropping back to help out Rafael at the back from time to time, with the Brazilian international trying to prove he can handle the best the world has to offer. Which, in this game, is exactly what he'll be coming up against.
The best left winger the world has to offer.
How do you think Manchester United should set up vs. Real Madrid?
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