It’s impossible not to look at the run of games that Real Madrid have just gone through and not have genuine concerns over the mental fatigue, in addition to the physical fatigue, that the players are contending with. Back to back clasico’s followed by the visit to Old Trafford will place a huge burden upon the side. The side are bound to arrive tired which should ultimately contribute to a Man Utd aggregate win.
With La Liga already gone, the priority is Madrid’s quest for la decima literally, the tenth. Los Blancos have remained stationed on nine European Cups for too long. It has been that way for ten seasons now, having last lifted the famous trophy back in 2002. The club has grown impatient as Barcelona dominated and it was one reason why Jose Mourinho was hired by the club and, over the last two and a half season, why he has been granted more power than any other coach in the history of the club.
Forget the Copa del Rey game midweek. Forget the caslico on Saturday afternoon. As convincing as these performance were as Madrid delivered, and they were both highly impressive for differing reasons, it will mean absolutely nothing if Madrid get knocked out of the Champions League this week. This game has the potential to define Mourinho’s tenure in Madrid. Everything that has happened before will be erased from history should he lose. Similarly, if Madrid progresses, this could be the first line in his epitaph.
Just as in the opening leg, the questions in this game will be Ferguson’s to consider.
The die has been cast for Madrid. Mourinho will turn to his strongest line up. The line up, as shown below, is more or less certain barring injury or illness with the exception of central defence. Will the prodigious Varane retain his starting position ahead of Pepe who has returned to full fitness?
Surprisingly Manchester United are underdogs going into the game and bwin are offering our readers a £20 free bet for the 2nd leg!
Expected Line Up
With Casillas out injured, Diego Lopez will remain in goals. It’s an example of the depth in quality that Spain have at goalkeeper level that Lopez has just a solitary cap. That should not camouflage recent errors though. Has been beaten at his near post far too easily on a few occasions recently.
Arbeloa and Coentrao will be the full backs. Arbeloa is naturally more conservative on the right whilst Coentrao, although attack minded, offers greater defensive protection than the cavalier Marcelo. Madrid cannot afford a gung-ho left back given that Ronaldo seldom backtracks. It’s an area that Man Utd should look to exploit. Two on ones against Coentrao. It does however, leave you exposed on the transition which is what Madrid are seeking.
Central defence will be Ramos, a far more mature defender now although still prone to the odd bout of ill discipline and either Pepe or Varane. Pepe could be pushed into a defensive midfield slot where he tends to either excel or self destruct.
In midfield Alonso and Khedira form a key partnership. Khedira provides the work rate whilst Alonso is an integral component of this team, linking the defensive and attacking units together with his passing. When Alonso struggles, so do Madrid. If he is pressed, he will drop deeper almost between the centre backs to avoid being hararssed. If he does, the full backs move higher offering outlets on the wings.
The mercurial Ozil is the central point of the attacking trident but he drifts laterally. His movement and intelligence are his strongest assets, finding space and exploiting gaps between the lines.
Ronaldo on the left almost always cuts infield and adopts a more central position. The main threat from Madrid, he has 39 goals in 37 appearances across all competitions this season. More than that though, his is provision of assist now too. Previously, he was very selfish but have become a greater all round player more attuned to the needs of the team now.
Di Maria on the right combines defensive diligence with an attacking threat. A few squabbles with Mourinho has seen him dropped on occasion but for a game of this magnitude he will surely start. Which leave the striking role to Higuain. Benzema is a candidate but the Frenchman has struggled this season and only averages a goal every three games in the league. He also looks a few pounds overweight.
In their five games since meeting Man Utd three weeks ago, Madrid have only fielded their full strength team on one occasion. Away to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey. On Saturday afternoon despite facing Barcelona again, Mourinho chose to rest Alonso, Khedira, Di Maria, Ozil, Higuain, Arbeloa and Ronaldo. Aside form his defence, it was essentially a reserve team that played. Yet they still won 2-1 giving the entire squad a massive boost. Real Madrid enter this game having played two games of massive quality. Man Utd enter the game having thumped Norwich. There is a significant gap.
Contrast that with Man Utd. With a 12 point lead in the league, why risk Van Persie and Rooney so close to the most important game of the season so far?
Madrid arrive in Manchester with ten wins, four draws and a solitary defeat in 2013 across all competitions, in the process scoring 35 goals whilst conceding just 11. The raw statistics conceal some issues however, Madrid have clocked up an astonishing eight red cards in those 15 games. A combination of ill discipline, strict refereeing and stupidity on the part of certain players.
This side are capable of producing sublime performances. In January, they travelled to face Valencia, improving under new coach Valverde, and swatted them aside with ease leading 5-0 at half time in a demonstration of power, pace and technique. Two weeks later an away game to Granada beckoned. Incredibly, Granada failed to register a shot on target yet won 1-0 thanks to an own goal from Ronaldo. Granada recorded just 28% possession yet Madrid only created one or two real chances during the game. The difference in the games, aside from motivation possibly, was the opponents defensive line. Granada sat deep, beckoning Madrid forward. Valencia tried to impose themselves on the game and squeeze Madrid back. It meant acres of space behind the Valencia defence for Madrid to exploit and they did.
Tuesday Night’s 2nd Leg
It’s a cliché but in this instance, it really is undeniably true. The first goal in this game will be crucial. Whoever scores the first goal will be in a tremendous position to progress if they make the right decisions. If.
Whoever scores first should retreat into a defensive position and play the remainder of the game on the counter attack or even kill the game. Break it up with stoppages preventing the opponent from finding any rhythm. If Madrid score, that is exactly what Mourinho and his side will do. The beautiful game? It’s all about winning for the Portuguese. If they take the lead, the dynamic of the game will change completely as they retreat. Why? Quite simply, Real Madrid are the best counter attacking side in the world. They will take advantage of your errors.
Madrid need to score and should come forward but don’t expect an all guns blazing approach at the outset. The changes will arrive in the second half if the game is still level at 0-0.
The problem for Sir Alex Ferguson and Man Utd is – are they disciplined enough to play a defensive game for the majority of the game if the situation demands it? The fans must be prepared to accept a performance of discipline and organisation like that which they produced during the second half three weeks ago at the Santiago Bernabeu.
A gameplan which involves Man Utd being bold enough to give Madrid the ball and see if they can seize the initiative and dictate the game?
Tuesday night will provide the answer.
Match Odds by bwin bets
£20 wins you:
Match ends 0-0: £230
Ronaldo scores and Madrid win 1-0: £680
Manchester United to advance to the next round: £44
Rooney to score first goal of game: £140
van Persie to score 2 goals: £120