Let the hyperbole go into overdrive – the match the world is waiting to see is finally upon us. Whether you dread, anticipate or openly salivate at the prospect of Manchester United’s trip to the Bernabeu, there is simply no hiding from it. With the sheer magnitude of the occasion and the talent-laden opposition, aside from finals, few matches have garnered such a preparation in recent years.
Put simply, United are in the best shape imaginable and in exactly the sort of position Sir Alex Ferguson would have wanted come mid-February. A 12 point lead in the title race leaves room to play with so you could not begrudge the seven proposed changes for the Everton game. That City’s loss to Southampton swayed him to name his strongest side is admitting that the chance to extend the lead was too good to turn down.
The league remains the priority and with 12 games to go few would bet against United regaining the title. The current squad should know that in the context of last season’s collapse, the same mistakes are not going to be made again. The desire to win the league back would have been strengthened by the manner in which it slipped away and even the temptation to rest half the team for a crucial Champions League game will not change that.
While Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Nemanja Vidic were each given 90 minutes on Sunday, the chance to rest players should ultimately come before the return leg with a home FA Cup tie against Reading, a trip to QPR and a home game against Norwich providing less sterner tests than a resolute Everton side.
With that and Madrid’s unpredictable away form in mind, ensuring that the tie is still alive come the return is paramount. Step forward then, Phil Jones. Tactically, the match is fraught with intrigue and Jones’ deployment is largely rumoured to involve a man-marking job on Cristiano Ronaldo.
The recent games against Tottenham and Everton have brought welcome practice countering Bale and Fellaini, so expect Jones to fill in with almost a traditional right half-back role patrolling their left wing and ensuring that the Portuguese danger man does not cut inside. Man-marking is largely seen as out of date yet Sir Alex Ferguson seems to be a fan and it has worked before, most notably Ji-Sung Park’s job on Andrea Pirlo in the San Siro which was crucial in a 3-2 away win.
United should have the inside track on how to dominate Ronaldo and should be able to learn from City’s mistake and not leave him one-on-one with a full-back. Thankfully, Rafael is in excellent form yet this almost unique scenario might also involve the likes of Rooney or even Danny Welbeck chasing back to shut him off.
However, as United found against Tottenham, man-marking the opposition’s most dangerous player also leaves gap. In this case, for the quick-thinking and fleet of foot duo of Mesut Özil and Angel di María. Then there is the catch-22 of ideally snatching an away goal but not leaving yourself exposed to the counter-attack. Anyone who has watched Madrid this season will appreciate that perhaps it is best to gift them possession when well equipped at the back as they ponder how to break your defence down.
Surprisingly, for a team with such attacking talent, they struggle to break teams down. Instead, Madrid is built with the need for speed so flooding men forward is kamikaze. As Sevilla noted at the weekend, ten seconds later and the ball is in your net.
Patrice Evra has spoken of the need to beat Madrid to signal United’s return to the top table of European football and a positive result would certainly go some way to redeeming last season’s group stage exit. Encouragingly, United have seemingly excelled in the big games with impressive results away to Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool.
Negotiating a successful league campaign with huge games in the Champions League is a juggling act that Sir Alex Ferguson has plenty of practice in and we will soon know if a few days rest to key players would have been worth it. A score draw would undoubtedly be a satisfactory night’s work but for the time being, a 12 point lead is hard to argue against.