Ahead of Tuesday evening's return leg between Manchester United and Real Madrid at Old Trafford, we've once again checked in with our friends over at 'Managing Madrid' -- the Madrid community here on the SB Nation network -- for another Q&A exchange. Their editor-in-chief -- Lucas Navarete -- was kind enough to update us on the happenings of his club since the tie at the Bernabeu. Here's the interview:
TBB: I suppose the obvious introductory question should be asking about how things have gone since Manchester United and Real Madrid last met at the Bernabeu? Y'all have had the two La Liga victories against Rayo Vallecano and Deportivo La Coruna and then of course, the two spectacular wins against Barcelona -- with the Cope del Rey performance being particularly impressive. Can you discuss this? Are Madrid peaking at the moment?
MM: One has the feeling that Real Madrid is starting to compete when everything is starting to matter. La Liga was lost against lesser teams on the road. Still, there are some players missing. Sergio Ramos, even though he scored Real's winner against Barcelona, should be on the bench at the Old Trafford to leave room for Raphael Varane and Pepe. I don't know what's wrong with him, but a single mistake can cost Real Madrid the tie, and he's showing a pretty bad tendency right now. But yes, the team has improved. The win against Deportivo was very sloppy, but that can happen anytime. What matters is that the team still figured a way to win. I'm sure the team is not as anxious about the Old Trafford match as they could be if they had lost against Barcelona, being the Champions League the only title option remaining. And that's certainly good. I'm starting to get the feeling that the team will compete better. We're arguably in our best form since the season started.
TBB: The always brilliant Sid Lowe wrote a piece last week on how eight days will define Madrid's season -- specifically the two recent el clasicos and then Tuesday's match against United. Furthermore, he suggested that these will be vital ties in defining Jose Mourinho's legacy at the club. Do you agree with this? Just to add to this, if Mourinho were to lose to United but win the Copa del Rey this season and then potentially leave, would his time at the Bernabeu be considered a success without winning la decima? I ask this because he does have the admirable accomplishment of squashing Barca's dominance.
MM: I would not catalogue Mou's tenure with us a success if he doesn't win La Décima, but this hasn't been a failure neither, that's for sure. The Copa del Rey is a minor trophy. It was really good when we won it in Mou's first season because the project was developing and the Final was against Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, who were on their road of winning the treble if we didn't win the Copa del Rey. But to win the Copa del Rey, getting out of the Champions League in the Round of 16 and lose La Liga by that huge margin would not be a success. Still, I think that Mourinho could've worked a lot better if the club backed him completely. He's found a lot of trouble within his own team this third season, and some players seem to think they're more important than the club. That's why I believe he's not the only one responsible for this year's disappointment (if United finally takes us out). I think Mou's legacy with the club is a good one, though. He's shown he's almost the only man on Earth that knows how to stop Barcelona on a regular basis, and that matters a lot for a club that is forced to play against them a maximum of 6 times per year with the Supercup, La Liga and the Copa del Rey. He turned things around. The club was struggling against them in his first year but now he and the players have managed to lose only 1 game out of the last 7 against Barcelona. That's impressive, and that's a good legacy, if you ask me. Not as good as it could be, but good anyways.
TBB: In the reverse fixture, David de Gea was obviously our star man and he perhaps is the biggest reason United were able to obtain a desirable result. One notable thing from that match, though, was the poor form of Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain. Had they played better, Madrid might perhaps be in the lead right now. Have they improved in the past two-and-a-half-weeks? Which one do you expect to start at Old Trafford? If Madrid had a consistent world-class striker (e.g. Falcao, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robin van Persie), do you feel things in Europe might have gone differently in recent seasons?
MM: They haven't improved a single bit. Benzema scored against Barcelona this Saturday, but I could've scored that goal if you placed me on the field, I should say. I think Higuaín will get the chance to start, and that's something Manchester United fans should be celebrating. His goal-scoring record in Europe is simply ridiculous, and he's yet to show what he can do against powerful teams. Yes, he scored against lesser teams in a weekly basis, but I don't think he has what it takes to be a European-caliber striker. I love Karim Benzema, but he's in a huge slump right now. He needs to regain confidence. I have no doubts on my mind that if Madrid had Falcao playing upfront, this team would certainly be the one to beat in order to win the Champions League. I think the club is starting to realize this and we will sign an striker this next summer. If I were Mourinho, I'd try to play Cristiano Ronaldo upfront with Angel Di María, Luka Modric and Mesut Özil behind him. But I don't think this is an option he's considering, unfortunately. That's how bad Higuaín and Benzema are playing. But careful, if Benzema has his night, he can destroy any given team. He definitely has the quality, but not the steadyness.
TBB: Can we expect any personnel changes from the clash at the Bernabeu? Perhaps more specifically, will Alvaro Arbeola continue at right-back? United's main outlet in the reverse fixture was Danny Welbeck's pace advantage in space against the Spaniard. Are there any speculated big surprises? How's the health of Xabi Alonso -- that seems to have been a concern in the past few weeks?
MM: Arbeloa seems to be a recurrent question everywhere. But he's starter for Mourinho. He simply doesn't have another right back. Arbeloa will start, I'd bet my own house for that. Welbeck is a fine player, but I trust Arbeloa a lot defensively. He's not a concern for Mourinho nor for me. He'll compete, he's a great right back even though he's always questioned by the fan base. It's OK, that's how his game is. He will never be a Man of the Match, but he will never lose the game for Real Madrid neither. That's something we're used to when Ramos play in the right back position. Ramos is a center back, period. We know he played well in the 2010 WC, but those were only 6 games. Arbeloa will be Real's starter.
Alonso seems to be saving himself for this match and Tuesday's one against Barcelona. He will start at the Old Trafford, that's for sure. The team should pretty much start the same squad with the question of Ramos-Varane-Pepe still in the air. One of them will sit on the bench, and Pepe's presence in the midfield this Saturday was so huge that I think he's ready enough to play at the Old Trafford at his natural center back position.
TBB: What sort of tactics do you expect from Madrid? Anything different from the reverse fixture? Mourinho is obviously aware his side must score goals in order to advance and he cheekily said in the post-game comments last time how he was surprised United defended so deep. Was he daring Sir Alex Ferguson to be more proactive at Old Trafford? We certainly can't invite the same sort of pressure that we did at the Bernabeu -- which Ferguson has admitted -- but it wouldn't be surprising to see United take a cautious approach from the start. If this happens, will Madrid simply be patient and expect goals to eventually come or do they have 'Plan B' if they feel the need to push for goals?
MM: Real Madrid can score goals in any given situation. We have CR. That's why I expect a cautious approach from Mourinho and the team. Keep the 0-0 and see what happens in the first half, you know? Let's make profit from our chances and defend well. If Ferguson gives Real Madrid the ball, let's try to score but without being vulnerable defensively. I don't think Real Madrid needs to launch the cavalry just yet. If the 70th minute has come and we're still 0-0, then Mou could change Arbeloa for Jose Callejón, and Sami Khedira for Modric, I assume. It's not often that we've seen this kind of situation with the team, but that's been a frequent substitution in La Liga. But I'm confident and I think Real Madrid will score, so I believe the tie will depend on which team is able to defend better.