Quite often in these sort of grand encounters between two storied clubs, the actual football fails to match the eager anticipation of the tie. Thus far, that has not been the case for Manchester United and Real Madrid in their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 match-up. Nearly three weeks ago at the famed Santiago Bernabeu, the Reds and Los Merengues played to a sumptuous 1-1 draw. Danny Welbeck opened the scoring in the 20th minute when he fought off Sergio Ramos to head home a Wayne Rooney corner. The irrepressible Cristiano Ronaldo brilliantly equalised 10 minutes later when he picturesquely rose high to hammer in a header from an Angel di Maria cross. Wonderful football followed, but the goals dried up, partially due to some tremendous goalkeeping from David de Gea and Diego Lopez. The stage is set for a potentially terrific 2nd-leg at the Theatre of Dreams.
Form Guide: Up to this point, the season has gone as well as desired for Sir Alex Ferguson's side. They currently enjoy a 12-point advantage over Manchester City in the Premier League title-race and they're still alive in their two most important cup competitions. Quite obviously, tonight's match will be instrumental for United's European ambitions while a challenging FA Cup quarter-final tie with Chelsea awaits them on Sunday. The Reds have not lost a match of consequence since mid-November.
Form Guide: It's been a hugely disappointing La Liga season for Jose Mourinho's side as they currently sit 13 points back of FC Barcelona in the title race. They have, though, hit peak form for the season and this is perhaps most evident by their recent two el clasico victories over the Blagurana in the past week. Tonight's match at Old Trafford is the most important of the season for Real as their success may be defined solely by their pursuit of la decima.*
* The chase of an elusive 10th European Cup triumph
Team News: Captain Iker Casillas is the only player unavailable.
United: Ferguson, as is typical, is likely to have a few surprise selections choices. Five players, though, seem certain to start at obvious postions -- David de Gea in goal, Rafael at right-back, Patrice Evra at left-back, Michael Carrick in central-midfield, and Robin van Persie at striker.
In central-defense, the manager will pick two of Jonny Evans, Nemanja Vidic, and Rio Ferdinand. The latter seems most likely to start if he's fully recovered from a supposed flu he was battling last week. There's been caution with Vidic the past few months as the club has been reluctant to use him twice in a week because of a recently surgically repaired knee and he featured just three days ago against Norwich City. Therefore, while the captain is certainly still possible to start for United's biggest game of the season, it might be Evans -- who was superb at the Bernabeu -- that gets the nod instead.
The remaining four selection choices will depend on the shape and tactics Ferguson elects to go with. A 4-4-1-1ish shape is probable but a midfield diamond or a 4-3-3/4-5-1 are possible. With Jones out, it seems that Tom Cleverley is the most likely candidate to join Carrick in midfield, although Ryan Giggs and Anderson are in contention.
In attack, Rooney is very probable to start and he could be deployed either in support of van Persie in a No.10/secondary striker role or as a wide player like he was during the reverse fixture. Antonio Valencia and Nani are others in contention on the right-side of attack while all of Nani, Giggs, Welbeck, Ashley Young, and Shinji Kagawa are possible on the left. The Japanese playmaker is also possible in a No.10 role.
Madrid: For Mourinho, his selection choices are relatively easy to project. Lopez will continue to deputise for Casillas in goal, Alvaro Arbeola is anticipated at right-back, and Fabio Coentrao will be the left-back. In central-defense, Ramos and Raphael Varane are expected but Pepe is possible.
In Real's double-pivot, Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira will start as will the talisman Ronaldo. Mesut Ozil is likely to be in a No.10 role but he could be shunted out wide if Mourinho opts for more midfield solidity by bringing in Luka Modric or Pepe at the expense of di Maria. The Argentinian winger, though, is in-form at the moment and is expected to start on the wing. Up front, either Gonzalo Higuain or Karim Benzema will feature.
* Diagram 1: Possible starting XI's for Manchester United and Real Madrid.
* Phil Jones' (expected) absence: Yes, I understand that Ferguson has ruled out Jones. However, the words came from Sir Alex's mouth so forgive me if I think there is a very slight possibility of seeing the combative 20-year-old's name on the team sheet when it's released at about 6:45pm GMT. It's very, very unlikely though, and Jones wasn't seen in training yesterday by the media that attended the session. So moving on...
Jones is nowhere near United's most influential player but for this particular tie, his absence will be enormously influential tactically. Ferguson entrusted him to shadow Ronaldo whenever the Portuguese drifted away from the left flank. In addition, the England international also doubled-up on the Real talisman when there was an opportunity to shackle him with Rafael. United don't have a like-for-like replacement for the role Jones played so United will be a different team from the one at the Bernabeu.
In short, Jones was tremendous in the role Ferguson asked him to play but the concentration of one central-midfielder on a single opposition player led to defensive isolation for some other United players and larger gaps for the Spanish side to exploit. That was the risk United were willing to live with and in general, despite the necessity of an incredible de Gea performance in goal, it worked to a degree as Ronaldo wasn't shackled, but his attacking prowess was contained somewhat. Without Jones, United will likely take a more balanced defensive approach and as a whole, this might allow them more control than they had at the Bernabue. However, with the shackles off and possible increased freedom, will that simply result in more opportunities for the dangerous Ronaldo to win the tie?
For more detailed analysis of what life without Jones might be like for this match, read this.
* United's approach and their awareness of Real's lethal counterattack: This can't be stressed enough: it is suicidal to allow Real space to break into. Sir Alex addressed this threat yesterday at his pre-match press conference:
"As we know, Real Madrid are one of the best counter-attacking teams in Europe. That showed itself last Tuesday at the Nou Camp [versus Barcelona] – they were absolutely stunning on the counter-attack so we have to find a way of coping with that while also having our own threat in an attacking sense. If you’re preparing for a game of football at our level you have to respect the strengths of the other team, which we do. Every team we play against, we do work in terms of their shape, their tactics and who their best players are. You’re only doing your job. That applies itself tomorrow."
In Michael Cox's preview piece for the Guardian, he had this anecdote exemplifying Real's lethality when they counterattack:
'There was a curious moment midway through the first half of Real Madrid's 2-1 victory over Barcelona on Saturday that showed how even Real's most frequent opponents struggle to comprehend the scale of their counterattacking threat.
Pepe went down injured, so Real knocked the ball out of play near the halfway line to allow the defender to receive treatment. When the match restarted, Barcelona returned the ball to Real in the most cynical way possible - thumping it downfield to give José Mourinho's side a throw-in close to the corner flag, then pushing forward to press, boxing Real into the corner.
It was highly unsporting, clearly, but it was also extremely foolish. Real absolutely thrive in those scenarios - dead ball situations close to their own goal, forcing the opposition to concede space behind their defence. Eight Barcelona players were now committed into Real's half and within five seconds Kaká and Karim Benzema were breaking against Barcelona's two centre-backs, the move coming to a premature conclusion with Kaka's miscontrol.'
It should be noted that Real will even be an enormous counterattacking threat when United have a corner. Mourinho's side struggle to defend on corners -- which Welbz is aware of -- but when the ball is cleared, they can be in the opposition's penalty area within seconds. Ozil is a magician when directing breaks from corners (he's typically on the edge of the area when the corner is taken) while the technical ability, pace, and movement of Ronaldo and di Maria make them optimal players for that situation.
At the Bernabeu, Ferguson got his tactics right. In general, United rarely committed too many players forward and they were able to deny Real space to break into when possession was won. They had an effective outlet to relieve pressure as well by using Welbeck's pace advantage on the left against Arbeola. The Reds, though, did absorb too much pressure at times -- something Ferguson admitted to in his post-match comments -- but this wasn't the result of them allowing Real to counterattack. The home side was often forced to patiently break down a United side with nine players behind the ball. Chances for Mourinho's side most frequently occurred because of individual defensive errors or because of the larger gaps United players were forced to guard due to Jones' patrolling of Ronaldo.
Will Ferguson look to take the territory battle higher up the pitch at Old Trafford? That is perhaps the key tactical question. If so, how will the manager instruct his side to do this and what safeguards will he take to prevent the away side from counterattacking? It's interesting that in Cox's preview piece, he suggests that United should play like the 'away team.'
KO: 7:45pm GMT, 2:45pm EST | Old Trafford
Live TV: ITV1 (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.)
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey)
Odds: Manchester United 19/10, Draw 12/5, Real Madrid 13/10