[UEFA Champions League] On Wednesday at the Bernabeu in Spain nine-time European Cup winner Real Madrid hosts the first-leg of a round of 16 encounter with Manchester United in what is undoubtedly the most anticipated game of the season.
TV: Manchester United-Real Madrid (Wednesday 2:45pm ET, Fox Soccer)
There’s simply no way to address the infinite storylines between these two behemoths, here’s but a few.
The difference a year makes: Real Madrid won La Liga last year, setting records for points, wins and goals in a season, and beat Barcelona by 9 points. It lost on penalties in Madrid to Bayern Munich in April’s UCL semifinal.
Manchester United was third behind Benfica and Basel during a group stage exit of the UCL, and then finished an excruciating second in the Premier League during the closest title chase in history to rival Man City.
Madrid is now a team turmoil, making news for all the wrong reasons, 16 points behind Barcelona, second in its UCL group. United comes in humming, unbeaten in its last 14 during all competitions, 12 points clear in the EPL, and first in its UCL group.
In spite of this, odds makers favor Madrid. It's 9/2 to win the tourney, behind only Barca, while Man U is sixth favorite at 12/1.
Obvious and critical: Alex Ferguson has better insight than anyone on the conundrum of corralling Cristiano Ronaldo. With a right back in Rafael, who looks to get forward and suffers lapses in concentration, will Fergie’s answer be multiple bodies, holding Rafael out of attack, or Antonio Valencia’s athleticism returning to fullback?
Wayne Rooney is still the engine at United, even as he's evolved into a deep playmaker who scores goals, with 10 in his last 10 starts. Jose Mourinho’s most important players may be Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso. Khedira jumps forward on occasion while Alonso has a tendency to fall in love with his passing ability. With Rooney’s terrific movement, Madrid needs its holding midfielders to exhibit discipline, positional awareness, and bite.
Portugese Protégé: “When I arrived at United I was 18 and Sir Alex was like a father to me.” Ronaldo told The Sun “I worked with him for six years and he is a great human, a great coach.”
This is Ronaldo’s first game against United since leaving in 2009, but Cristiano did beat United during a friendly with Sporting Lisbon in 2003, when he first caught the iconic coach’s attention.
Dollars and sense: These are two most valuable sports teams on the planet. Forbes ranked Manchester United first, valued at $2.23 billion, while Real Madrid was second at $1.88 billion, just above the New York Yankees.
The $35 million spent by United to acquire Robin Van Persie from Arsenal looks a bargain. The Dutch striker has transitioned seamlessly and leads the EPL with 19 goals.
Calendar concerns: Ferguson fielded a strong team in Sunday’s win over Everton, and complained about the EPL’s schedule.
“It’s ridiculous to think that we play on the Sunday and Real Madrid play on the Saturday with that extra day’s rest,” Ferguson said.
For the crucial second-leg at Old Trafford on March 5, United gets Madrid after back-to-back Clasicos against Barcelona in what will be its third game over an exhausting 7 days.
The Skinny: Winning the EPL makes this is a successful year at Manchester, while Madrid can only salvage this season by winning this tournament. The pressure is squarely on Madrid, especially with the return schedule, but that’s when Mourinho is at his best.
The Special One gets bored easily, but matching wits with Sir Alex with so much at stake is exactly the type of environment where the Portugese coach thrives.
A scoring draw or better would be a great result for United, whereas anything but a victory is a disaster for Madrid. Mourinho’s teams rarely come out flat in games of this magnitude, and a one-goal advantage by Madrid heading back to Old Trafford sounds right.
Notes: Ronaldo’s hat trick in Madrid’s 4-1 home win over Sevilla Saturday was his 20th for Real … Mourinho was at Old Trafford the next day to scout United, and see Ryan Giggs’ opener make it 23 straight seasons with an EPL goal by the Welshman. … Gus Johnson makes his Champions League debut as the voice of Fox Soccer in Madrid ...