By Francis Johnston
The return leg of the glamour Champions League last 16 tie between Manchester United and Real Madrid takes place next week at Old Trafford, with an exciting match-up guaranteed. The English side hold a slight advantage in that a hard-fought 1-1 draw at the Santiago Bernabeu means a win on home soil will see them through to the quarter-finals. However, Jose Mourinho’s side showed their quality with a Clasico win over Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey on Tuesday night, which will have reminded United that the tie is far from over.
Madrid’s top players such as Angel Di Maria, Mesut Ozil and obviously Cristiano Ronaldo are as good on the break as any team in world football, and come March 5 at Old Trafford, United must be wary of committing too many men forward. Barcelona tried to play their normal brand of keep-ball, passing their opponents into submission, but the capital-city side showed excellent defensive capabilities to keep the Blaugrana, and Lionel Messi, short of chances.
Add to this the swiftness of Madrid’s counter-attacking, and United will know that they are still in a tough tie. Mourinho will set up his side in England to absorb United possession, with the likes of Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso acting as a defensive shield in front of the back four. However, the Portuguese coach will know that his side are more than capable of scoring goals on the counter-attack, and will utilise the pace and direct running of the afore-mentioned players to try and score away goals and get themselves back in the ascendancy in the tie.
United look likely to be without Phil Jones through injury, who would almost certainly have been given the job of man marking Ronaldo. In the 20-year-old’s absence, the Red Devils must come up with a plan to limit their former player’s threat; whether it be assigning someone like Rafael to monitor Ronaldo or using two defensive midfielders to limit space, it remains to be seen.
Madrid meet Barcelona again this weekend; this time in La Liga and at the Bernabeu. With the Spanish champions on the ropes after two defeats in three games, another Madrid win would certainly send Los Blancos to England full of confidence.
About the Author: Francis Johnston is a freelance football journalist with a degree in Sports Media and a love for the beautiful game. A life-long Manchester United fan, Francis is an expert on British and European football and has a soft spot for Argentine giants Boca Juniors. Francis is retained by acclaimed football blog Ninety Minutes Online as their lead columnist and also writes for a number of leading media outlets.