When the draw was made, I wasn’t happy to see United facing Real Madrid in the Round of 16. People rattle off sayings like “to be the best you’ve got to beat the best” but I’d prefer the easiest route possible to give us the best chance of winning a fourth European Cup. The journey was a relatively easy one when we last reached the final in 2011, beating Marseille, Chelsea and Schalke to book our place in the final at Wembley. Barcelona certainly were the best and we didn’t come close to beating them, unfortunately. Would I have preferred to see Arsenal knock them out in the Round of 16, or Shakhtar Donetsk in the quarters, and us play one of those two sides instead of Barcelona in the final? Without a shadow of a doubt. Two European Cups for Sir Alex Ferguson is not an accurate reflection of the quality sides he’s produced at United and I’m desperate for him to win at least one more before he retires.
Still, if the road to success isn’t an easy one, there’s no point getting too downbeat about it, and there’s no denying I’m far more excited about tonight’s game than I would be a game against Porto or Malaga. Any frustration felt over being handed one of the tougher draws, despite finishing top of our group, soon melted away and was replaced with huge anticipation. Playing Real Madrid in the European Cup is as big as it could get for United and it will be interesting to see our manager and players face the challenge.
Whilst writing a preview for such a game, you can’t get too far in before mentioning Cristiano Ronaldo, who became the best player in the world at United, and, according to Sir Alex Ferguson, has got even better since leaving. Our manager says he’s at his “peak” now, but as former team mates like Patrice Evra have warned, he’ll never get the full credit he deserves over there when measured so competitively with Lionel Messi. Ronaldo is voted 2nd best in the Ballon d’Or every season and the fans aren’t anywhere near as appreciative of him as they should be. He has played 179 games for Real Madrid and scored 182 goals, which is quite simply a mind-blowing statistic. Still, this season is his fourth, and he’s won just one league title and hasn’t even played in a European Cup final yet. In six seasons at United he won four league titles, played in two European Cup finals (scoring our only goal in one of them) and won eight trophies in total. Ferguson famously talked about seeing a cow in another field and thinking it is better than your own, when reflecting on Wayne Rooney’s decision to leave the club, and you do wonder if some of this may apply to Ronaldo now. He always dreamed of playing in Madrid, it was definitely something he had to do, but you have to think his time there has fallen short of his expectations so far.
Ronaldo has today claimed that his heart is at United, he never stops singing the praises of the manager, and it is clear he holds a great deal of affection for the club. Still, that will all be put to one side tonight and he will give everything he has to be on the winning team. Rio Ferdinand has questioned whether the game will be too “emotional” for Ronaldo, but I reckon that’s wishful thinking. He had no problems playing well and scoring against Sporting Lisbon, the club he joined as a 10-year-old, when he played for United, so I doubt the occasion tonight will be too big for him. The question is, how will we stop him.
Gary Neville has said the only way to stop Ronaldo is to make sure that we stay tight to him. Phil Jones has been tipped as the player to man-mark him, as he has done so successfully against Bale and Fellaini in recent weeks, but Neville suggested it will take more than one person to stop him, if you can manage to stop him at all. Whilst he is clearly their best player, it would be foolish to think we can pile on to Ronaldo all the time and leave space for their other players, because they have plenty of players capable of doing damage, even if their league position suggests otherwise. They’re currently 16 points behind Barcelona and Jose Mourinho conceded the title ages ago. But to be successful in Europe is entirely different to being a success in the league, as Liverpool and Chelsea have both proven in recent years, with their awful teams who didn’t come close to competing in the Premier League somehow managing to lift the trophy. Mourinho is a quality manager, a great tactician, and we will be up against it tonight.
An article published on the blog earlier today suggested our possible formations for this evening, but it’s hard to predict what the manager will go with. You imagine the most obvious starters are De Gea, Rafael, Vidic, Evra, Carrick, Rooney and Robin van Persie, but the other positions are up for grabs. You’d think that Rio Ferdinand would come in alongside Vidic, but then Jonny Evans has been great this season, and has only slowed down because of a recent injury. We have the option of padding out the midfield with Cleverley and Jones playing with Carrick, or we might opt with the formation and line-up that saw us beat City at the Etihad earlier this season, although Ashley Young has been out of the team for some time, meaning Kagawa might be used on the left.
These are the games that the European Cup is all about, the two biggest clubs in the world, although Ferguson said he would prefer this game to be played in the final. If we can get an away goal tonight and a narrow scoreline, even if that means losing 2-1, I will be happy enough with that. This is the “acid test” for this new team, who didn’t even get out of the group last season, and a real chance for them to prove themselves. Let’s hope they bloody well do it!
Come on United!