Manchester United versus Real Madrid -- European clashes don't get more grand than this.
United travel to the capital of Spain next week to take on the nine-time champions of Europe, Real Madrid, for the first of a two-legged Round of 16 UEFA Champions League tie. Ahead of this encounter at the historic Bernabeu, we've arranged for a two-part Q&A with Managing Madrid -- SB Nation's Real Madrid community. Their lead editor, Lucas Navarrete, was kind enough to answer some questions from the staff here at TBB for part 1 of our Q&A series. Part 2 will be available next Monday and we'll be offering up the opportunity for the readers here to ask their own questions prior to that. If you have any follow up questions to this Q&A, post them in the comments section below and Lucas will periodically check in this week to answer them. Without further ado, here's the first Q&A:
TBB: Can you discuss how Real Madrid's season has gone so far? From our perspective, we saw Jose Mourinho take the Meringues to incredible heights last season -- especially in La Liga -- and the club seemed ready to build on that this season (i.e. conquering Europe). Despite surviving the group of death in the Champions League, there seems to be some real regression this season though. Are you able to tell us why?
MM: I think it is all due to the motivation. For reasons unknown, the team hasn't been able of finding that desire or fire to win in La Liga. I think that achieving such a good Liga campaign, with all those records and even defeating Pep Guardiola's Barcelona in the Camp Nou and sending him all the way to New York is the reason why. First of all, the players found themselves in a difficult situation to begin with. Valencia tied the first game off a set piece, Pepe had to miss some weeks, and in the next game Getafe beat the team in two counterattacks. On the other hand, Barcelona was winning it all, so the team was five points behind (that's a big margin nowadays) with just two games played. Other than the game in Dortmund, the team has been playing well when needed, since La Liga was pretty much over the day Sevilla beat us to send Barcelona 8 points ahead. But trying to compete in two matches out of 10/month might be impossible. That's something Mourinho realizes, but it's hard to make the players care about a Liga game when you know Barcelona is still going to be 15 points ahead and you are going to finish 2nd or 3rd without a single problem.
TBB: What was the general Real Madrid reaction when Manchester United was the team you were drawn with for the Round of 16? For us, there was some trepidation because we know it's a daunting task to face Madrid -- especially this early in the knock-out stages. However, there is a lot of excitement as well because these are two the world's grandest football clubs.
MM: I certainly agree. I've yet to see Madrid beating such a great team in the last 8 years or so. We've got to the semis two seasons in a row, but leaving Lyon, Tottenham, APOEL or CSKA on the road, and that's not that big of a test. I wanted to play against Schalke, for sure, but Manchester United was my second option. Old Trafford is a very big venue to play in, and that's where I want to see the players performing and making a statement. To me, this is the biggest British club against the biggest Spanish one, so it should be a really amazing tie for us to watch.
TBB: The Old Trafford faithful is still quite fond of Cristiano Ronaldo and he'll undoubtedly get a very warm reception in the 2nd-leg (maybe less so if he bags a few goals at the Bernabeu). He's obviously still an incredible player, if not possibly better than he was when he left United. Can you talk about his time at Madrid? Has he reached icon status there, or are there segments of the fanbase that haven't 100% warmed to him? Besides Ronnie, which Madrid player should United be most worried about?
MM: He's had some troubles against the old part of the stadium. The one that cheers for Silva, Llorente and Cazorla instead of doing it for Özil, Benzema and Modric because they aren't Spanish. That's a big deal in our club, but Cristiano Ronaldo's recent performances in El Clásico have given him the icon status, yes. To me, there never was a doubt, but I do know now that he's probably a Top3 player in Real Madrid's history alongside Di Stefano and the early Raúl. I do think that the 96M€ transfer fee turned out to be really cheap for Real Madrid. He's obviously my favorite player on the roster. True legend.
About our other threats, I need to separate the players I consider more important to the club from those that I think can harm the opposition better. In the first group, I'd put Khedira, he's the glue of the team and his contribution is just priceless. I honestly believe he could reach the star level in the Premier League if given the chance to play a Yaya Touré (sorry to mention a citizen) kind of role. I'm sure you will all fall in love with his work. United should worry about Özil and Benzema then. Both of them are very streaky, but if they have a good night Real Madrid is just unstoppable. Özil is just starting to play well, but Benzema isn't at his best, unfortunately. If Marcelo was match-fit, he would harm United a lot, but there's no way that he can lose all the weight he gained in this month.
TBB: What's going on with Jose Mourinho? He's obviously a fantastic manager but he's also very polarizing. What can you tell us about the speculated tension in the dressing room? Is there really the Spanish and Portuguese fractions or is this embellishment by the media? The whole Iker Casillas situation seemed bizarre to us. Speaking of the media, how has Mou's relationship with them evolved in Spain? Do you think he'll be back next season or can he save his job by winning Madrid's 10th European Cup? Does he even want to return? Overall, are you content with the job he's done at your club?
MM: Very interesting question. First of all, I need to say that I'm a hardcore Mourinho fan. He didn't know how complicated this job was when he first signed, and even though he's had some bad moments (poking Tito in the eye, for example), his work should be noted. I don't think there's such a bad atmosphere in the team's dressing room. Of course, Ronaldo does get along better with Pepe than with Ramos, but that happens everywhere. The media is overreacting to turn the Bernabéu against Mourinho, but they are doing the Portuguese coach a big favor. He has the support of the crowd, and the Bernabéu now thinks that this is all a matter of journalists trying to get him fired to get some more interviews and have a key to the locker room.
All around Casillas comes from a performance point of view first. Real Madrid has lost 11 out of 15 points this season off set pieces. The goalkeeper obviously has a lot to do with this (see the mistake against Valencia in the first fixture or the play in which he got injured, for instance). Casillas has felt very comfortable in his spot throughout all his career, and he has not improved a single bit in his weakness: aerial balls. The media is overprotecting him, though. His girlfriend, Sara Carbonero, is a Marca and Telecinco journalist, and Casillas has dinner with some other journos as well, such as Fernando Burgos. That's why he feels untouchable. I truly believe that Casillas is making a lot of mistakes these months by leaking to Carbonero and Burgos that the dressing room is divided. The Bernabéu and Real Madrid's fanbase is a little bit disappointed with him, although there will always be the Casillas-first kind of fans. The truth is, I don't imagine Ryan Giggs neither Paul Scholes leaking to journalists whether they are going to play are not.
I think Mourinho will try to win La Décima these next two years, and as soon as he wins it, he will move to another challenge. Everyone in the Spanish media would mark his tenure down as a failure otherwise, they've been against him since the day he signed his contract because he stopped leaking and conceding as many interviews as other coaches decide. If it depended on me, I would have him as Real Madrid's manager the same years Ferguson has been United's. He's beat the best Barcelona ever and came to the rescue when Guardiola was winning it all. He's turned some things around, although he still has to win the major trophy.
TBB: Luka Modric was arguably the finest midfielder in England these past few seasons and he was (and still is) a player that many United fans would love to have. Obviously the likes of Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira, and Mesut Ozil are tremendous players so competition must be fierce. Can you discuss, though, why Modric has struggled to settle in? In England, he was more a tempo-setter but he seems to have more creative responsibilities with Madrid -- is he being asked to play a role he's not entirely comfortable in? What do you think his future is at Madrid? What you be upset if we kidnapped him and kept him after your visit to Old Trafford? :)
MM: He's not living up to the expectations, that's for sure. But I don't think he's played as bad as some people suggest. Modric didn't have a preseason whatsoever (big mistake by Real Madrid here), and he's had some troubles adapting to a different country, role and playing. I would love to see him without Alonso on the pitch. That way, Khedira would sweep every ball and he would have the freedom to create and deliver passes to Özil and the rest. But this is Alonso's very own Real Madrid. Every ball goes through him (understandably), and Modric isn't a very useful player without the ball. But I honestly have the sense that he will have a key role against United. Real Madrid should have patience, he will find his own place within the team soon enough.
TBB: What's the situation with Madrid's back four -- in regards to which players are injured and which players are in good/poor form at the moment? Raphael Varane received a lot of attention for his tremendous performance in the most recent el clasico and he was a player Sir Alex Ferguson wanted at United a few years ago. Will the youngster start against us? Also, do you think Sergio Ramos is better as a central-defender or as a right-back? And finally, can you talk about some of the vulnerability Real Madrid have shown from set-pieces this season? I specifically ask the latter because United have scored a plethora of set-piece goals this season.
MM: Arbeloa, Ramos, Varane and Coentrao will be the team's starters in the Bernabéu, I can almost assure you that. Varane is simply amazing, and not because of the last Clásico. His problem is that Pepe and Ramos are the team's starters when healthy, so he will have to wait a little bit before being the team's starter. Furthermore, Ramos is a terrible right back (with Real Madrid's shirt on, I do know that he played amazingly for Spain in 2010's South Africa WC), so it will be hard for him to remove either Pepe or Ramos from there. Ramos is brilliant, but he plays arrogantly, and that's obviously not good for a defender. In fact, I believe he could be a good right back, but he lacks the effort and the 90-minuted intensity to play there. Arbeloa fills the defensive spot well, but everybody wants to re-buy Carvajal from Leverkusen after his breakout season in Germany. He will help the team a lot next season in the right back spot. Marcelo is, in my opinion, the world's greatest left back when healthy. His 2010-2011 season is something every football fan should pay attention to. But he gains weight easily and he sometimes seems careless. Mourinho tried to prevent him from being that way by buying Coentrao, and the Portuguese left back will surely be the team's starter against United's right wing.
The team has been defending set-pieces very poorly, as I stated before. It's too early to predict whether a good aerial goalkeeper like Diego López will make an impact or not, but it should certainly help. It amazes me how a team with the likes of Ramos, Pepe, Khedira and Cristiano Ronaldo can concede those many goals. That's something that Ferguson will certainly take a look into to try to score some away goals at the Bernabéu.