Quite simply, these are the sort of occasions that most of us live for as football fans. It doesn't get much bigger than Manchester United against Real Madrid at the cathedral that is the Bernabeu. These two massive clubs have clashed numerous times in the past with the most recent tie occurring in 2003. The Reds won the second leg 4-3 but Los Blancos advanced due to their 6-5 aggregate advantage. That tie at the Theatre of Dreams is famously remembered for the Old Trafford faithful giving Ronaldo (1.0) a respectful ovation for his splendid hat-trick. It's also, supposedly, the night Chelsea owner Roman Abrahomich was seduced by the romance of football.
Form Guide: Sir Alex Ferguson's side are in fine shape domestically: they currently sit twelve points clear in the Premier League title race with twelve fixtures to go while they've also earned passage to the fifth round of the FA Cup. It has been nearly three months since United have been defeated in a meaningful match. Their most recent result occurred at the weekend when they coolly defeated Everton 2-0.
Team News: Darren Fletcher is out for the season due to illness while Paul Scholes did not accompany the team to Madrid. The latter trained with the club prior to their departure from England but he's been dealing with a minor knee issue as of late. Other recent injury concerns -- Phil Jones, Jonny Evans, and Anders Lindegaard -- all were on the flight to Spain and each are expected to be available for selection.
Form Guide: It has been a tumultuous season for the Spanish champions as arch-rival FC Barcelona are sixteen points clear in the La Liga title race. Adding insult to the disappointing league campaign is that cross-town rival Atletico Madrid are also four points clear of them. In cup competitions though, hope still exists for Jose Mourinho's side. They're currently sitting on a 1-1 scoreline after the first of two legs in the Copa del Rey semi-final against Barcelona while they're still considered top contenders for the European Cup by most. Madrid are also nearing top form as they've routinely put in convincing performance since the start of the new year.
Team News: Club captain Iker Casillas is unavailable due to a broken hand. Xabi Alonso had been considered a slight injury concern but he's expected to feature in the match. Raphael Varane's status is uncertain.
United: David de Gea, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney, and Robin van Persie all seem certain to start. Perhaps Rafael as well. The remaining four selection choices, though, are a mystery, as are Ferguson's planned tactics. The latter is likely to heavily influence the former.
When fit, Nemanja Vidic is clearly a first-choice central-defender. The club, though, are being cautious with the captain's surgically repaired knee so it seems unlikely that he'll feature just three days after doing so against Everton. Jonny Evans seems a good bet to partner Ferdinand in the back.
In midfield, the player(s) to partner Carrick will depend on tactics. Phil Jones is a speculated candidate because he could be asked to provide inside cover against Cristiano Ronaldo from a right-sided central-midfield position. Tom Cleverley has generally been the preferred partner for Carrick this season in a double-pivot -- particular for big games -- so he's an obvious consideration. The Englishman could play his normal role alongside Carrick, or he could be deployed in a more advanced position -- perhaps in a nominal No.10 sort of role so that he can get tight on Madrid's Xabi Alonso or perhaps in a shuttling role near one of the flanks. Anderson is another possibility to start. The Brazilian can provide the thrust for driving counterattacks and/or he could also be deployed in a nominal No.10 sort of role in order to harass Alonso.
Diagram 1: A possible United starting XI if Jones is used in a right-sided midfield role.
As mentioned, Rooney will start but his exact role is uncertain. Will he be the No.10 in support of van Persie or will he be shunted out wide if Ferguson wants another more natural central-midfielder in support of the double-pivot?
If the gaffer wants to use a 4-4-1-1 counterattacking system -- one where United look to break down the flanks -- then wingers such as Antonio Valencia, Nani, and Ashley Young are likely to be considered. The former two, though, aren't in top form while the latter has just returned from injury. Along with Rooney, Shinji Kagawa and Danny Welbeck could be considered for nominal wide roles. The former offers playmaking ability between the lines while the latter offers a pacey threat when he runs the channels.
Diagram 2: A possible United starting XI if a 4-4-1-1 system -- one where the counters are focused down the flanks -- is used.
Madrid: For Mourinho, his selection choices and tactical options are more straight-forward than Ferguson's. The newly-acquired Diego Lopez will be in goal and positioned in front of him with the captain's armband will be Sergio Ramos in central-defense. If Raphael Varane is a fitness concern, then the recently returned from injury Pepe will partner the Spaniard. Alvaro Arbeola is anticipated at right-back -- although Ramos is a slight possibility if Pepe and Varane are the central-defenders -- while Fabio Coentrao is expected to get the start over Marcelo at left-back.
In the double-pivot, Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira will start. Ahead of them in the No.10 role, Mesut Ozil is expected. If Mourinho, though, wished to fortify his midfield, he could deploy either Luka Modric or Michael Essien in the center of the park alongside Alonso and Khedira. This would result in Ozil shunted out wide to the right or possibly to the bench.
If Ozil is in his No.10 role, then expect Angel di Maria on the right side of attack. Up front, the lone striker will either be Gonzalo Higuain or Karim Benzema while talisman Cristiano Ronaldo will be the left-sided attacker.
Diagram 3: A projected starting XI for Real Madrid.
Typically in this section of our previews, we highlight tactical keys for the match. However, for this massive tie, we've offered up a 2,500 word tactical preview. We kindly refer you to that for your tactical needs.
KO: 7:45pm GMT, 2:45pm EST | Estadio Santiago Bernabeu
TV: Sky Sports 2 (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.)
Referee: Felix Brych (Germany)
Odds: Real Madrid 8/13, Draw 3/1, Manchester United 4/1