Real Madrid it is. This two-legged tie will most certainly produce some proper European nights between these two grand clubs. The subplots appear to be infinite. Manchester United club secretary John Alexander, though, quite nicely used brevity to sum up the draw:
"It's the game everybody wanted to see and nobody wanted to see because everybody wanted to save it for later in the competition."
- Alexander | Source: Sky Sports
Here are the first five (perhaps obvious) thoughts that popped into my own head when the draw occurred:
1. The return of Cristiano Ronaldo - The Portuguese hero will undoubtedly get a deserved warm reception when he steps onto the pitch at Old Trafford (maybe slightly less so if he bangs in four goals in the first-leg at the Bernabeu). It'll be his second return to Manchester (away to Manchester City in the group-stages this season was his first) since he departed United for the Spanish giants but it'll be his first appearance back at the 'Theatre of Dreams' -- a ground in which he was the clear star man for Sir Alex Ferguson's last great team (2006-09).
When the games get started, expect there to be fireworks on the Meringues' left-flank and on the Red Devil's right-flank. At United, Ronaldo popped up all over the place in attack -- on the right, left, and center -- but at Madrid, he mostly plays as a left-sided attacker. He's obviously a supremely gifted player, and he'll go down as one of football's all-time greats when he hangs up his boots, but Jonathan Wilson recently posed the intriguing question of whether the Portuguese is a strength or weakness to his team? Gary Neville, though, simply feels that Cristiano taught him a new way to play the game.
Nevertheless, Madrid's clear strength is their left-side (Ronaldo with either Marcelo or Fabio Coentrao) and United tend to focus their attacks down their right-side (Antonio Valencia with Rafael). This will be the toughest defensive test of young Rafael's career but the energetic Brazilian will have his chances to break forward and contribute in attack. Ronaldo is prone to not tracking back while Valencia and Rafael have proven that they can be lethal on the counterattack. It'll be nervy moments when Ronaldo is on the ball and he's likely to create some magic during this tie. However, United will have their chances as well down the same flank.
2. The original Ronaldo's 2003 performance at Old Trafford - These two sides last met in 2003 when Madrid won by a 6-5 aggregate scoreline during a quarter-final tie. The latter leg at the Theatre of Dreams is famous for the original Ronaldo's hat-trick heroics during a 3-4 defeat for the Spanish side. The Brazilian striker received a standing ovation from the Old Trafford faithful for his delightful performance:
Another supposed subplot from that tie is that it was one that made Roman Abramovich fall in love with football and he then went out and bought Chelsea.
There's another intriguing past match-up between these two sides -- it was in 1957 when Sir Matt Busby's team were defeated in the European Cup semi-final by a Alfredo Di Stefano led Madrid side. Busby had built a great side but his progress was obviously halted a year later after the tragic events in Munich.
3. Sir Alex Ferguson vs Jose Mourinho - These two great managers have had some momentous and contentious clashes -- whether that be when Mourinho went sprinting down the Old Trafford touchline in 2004 when his then FC Porto side defeated United in the first round of the knock-out stages or during his time with Chelsea when they were United's top title-contending rivals at that time. Since then though, by all accounts, these two men get along well now. Many even believe the 'Special One' is the heir apparent to Ferguson's throne at United.
Quite obviously, both Ferguson and Mourinho are highly-driven and extremely competitive. Both are ruthless as well. It'll be interesting to see if the events on February 13 and March 5 change their relationship. These encounters will be tense and a flashpoint could happen at any moment. Will one occur that jeopardizes the chances of Mourinho coming to Old Trafford as Ferguson's successor?
4. Counterattack vs.... uh, Counterattack? - After some struggles in Europe at the turn of the century, Ferguson adapted well and learned from his mistakes. He became more pragmatic and his 2008 continental conquest was built around a great 4-3-3 counterattacking side. This season, the gaffer has again showed that counterattacking is his preferred method in 'big games'. In games at both City and Chelsea, he effectively instructed his side to to play on the break in a 4-4-1-1 system.
Madrid, under Mourinho, also tend to prefer playing a counterattacking style. Last season, there were arguably the most devastating side in the world on the break. Xabi Alonso, with his tremendous range of passing, ignited attacks from deep for the fantastic front four of Ronaldo, Karim Benzema (or Gonzalo Higuain), Angel di Maria, and Mesut Ozil. As all top sides in leagues must do though, a successful proactive approach is necessary if three points are to be consistently earned. Madrid don't always do this well. In a recent Madrid defeat by Real Betis, the latter's manager Pepe Mel had some interesting comments in regards to allowing the former to have the ball:
"Against this Madrid you have the ball and you think that you're dominating. Suddenly, wallop. In three plays they have created six chances. They play openly on the break and it works well for them. They have no problem doing that because they know that when they do that they are the best. We tried to let them have the ball."
So, how will these contests between Manchester United and Real Madrid turn out? Will one side be brave and take the initiative? Will both sides sit back daring the other to come forward? Will approaches differ based on which ground the match is being played at? It could be a majestic two-legged tie if both sides have a go (unlikely) or if contrasting styles are displayed (proactive vs. reactive). However, it could be rather dull if both sides sit back and try to concede territory.
5. A test for the United midfield - United's clear best midfield combination at the moment is Michael Carrick being partnered by either Tom Cleverley or Anderson. These pairings offer Ferguson his best midfield balance. Carrick and Cleverley have performed well together against the best midfields in England this season but they haven't been so convincing that there isn't concern about their prospects in Europe. Madrid's midfield of Alonso, Sami Khedira, and either Ozil or Luka Modric is a far tougher test than any that can be offered in England.
This will be a good, but somewhat scary test for United's midfield. If they can hold their own against Madrid, then Ferguson can (maybe) be somewhat justified for not purchasing a central-midfielder in recent years. If they get completely overrun, then the great manager will get deserved criticism for never addressing the clear weakness in his squad from these past few seasons.