Champions League football returns tonight with a mouth-watering last 16 clash between Manchester United and Real Madrid at Old Trafford. The tie is on a knife-edge after an end-to-end 1-1 draw between the teams at the Santiago Bernabeu a couple of weeks ago, with the game very unpredictable. However, with the calibre of the defeated opposition, will the victorious team become frontrunners to lift the trophy at Wembley come May?
Both Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho will know that progression will give their respective team a massive psychological boost and lift confidence heading into the quarter-finals. Plus, with the possibility that Barcelona could be eliminated by AC Milan, the winner of this tie has every chance of going all the way.
United have all but wrapped up the Premier League title, with a 12 point advantage at the summit and only ten games to play. The Red Devils are on a run of scintillating form, and a 4-0 victory over Norwich at the weekend is a continuation of recent victories.
Ferguson will be pleased with how the tie is positioned given the draw in the Spanish capital, and now knows that victory at home will send his side through. However, this will be no easy task.
At the turn of 2013 Real Madrid looked to be a faded force from the team that lifted the La Liga title last season, with internal wranglings and inconsistent form making the headlines. However, over the course of the last month Los Blancos have set the record straight; back-to-back victories over arch rivals Barcelona show that on their day Madrid can beat anyone in world football.
The 3-1 victory at Camp Nou in the Copa Del Rey will be of specific relevance to the United clash. Madrid sat back and allowed Barca to have the ball, defended diligently and pressed the Blaugrana’s main attacking players. Consequently, when this pressing resulted in a turnover, Madrid hit their Catalan foes on the break clinically and with devastating precision.
At Old Trafford United will be expected to have the bulk of possession and look to kill the tie off by scoring the goals needed to win the game. The English side must be wary of committing too many men forward however, as Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria in particular have all the attributes to punish.
The absence of Phil Jones will mean that the hosts lack a real physical force in the centre of their midfield, and as such the likes of Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley, if selected, will need to work their socks off to close Madrid’s playmakers down.
A fixture that would be a fitting final, both teams will treat this game as such, and come full-time a new favourite to lift the 2012-13 Champions League crown could well book their place in the last eight.