And so we go to Old Trafford for the second leg. A 1-1 draw in Madrid sets this game up nicely. United have a very slight advantage, but in truth this is the hard part. Here are a few thoughts ahead of the game.
- The away goal doesn’t really count for much. It wouldn’t be decisive unless the score in the second leg is 0-0, and that seems unlikely.
- The away goal could change the pattern of the game however, but even then only deep into the second half if things are still even. Real Madrid is unlikely to change their game plan until that point. Reports in Spain indicate that they have been practicing penalties, which suggests that they anticipate a tight game.
- United’s second half performance in Madrid saw the team remain compact in the centre of the pitch. This was effective in that it restricted Madrid to high balls into the box, to which Ferdinand and Evans were equal, or shots from distance, which De Gea dealt with. We would expect United’s approach to be broadly similar.
- Who will take the initiative? This really is a game of chess. Real Madrid is naturally a counter attacking team. They look at their most dangerous in the first leg immediately after turnovers in possession and usually after United had just ventured forward. When United sat deep and remained compact Madrid eventually ran out of ideas. Late in the game it looked like United were the more likely side to snatch it. The problem for Madrid was that in the first game United generally surrendered the initiative, and the home side did not seem to know how to make the most of it.
- In the home game the natural onus is on United to attack. This would play into Mourinho’s hands. Will Sir Alex be prepared to sit back, and if he does will the United crowd have the confidence and courage to remain patient and stick with the game plan?
- The key issue for United in this game is the old problem often faced by the club in European games; how do you stay compact in the middle and yet play with width? This is doubly pertinent for this game because in the first leg Madrid looked to have a weakness in the centre-back positions and Ramos looks like a red card waiting to happen, (he in fact said recently after being sent off in a league game that it is too easy for referees to send him off – let’s hope so!).
- How do United counter Ronaldo? Madrid is far from a one man team, but Ronaldo is the stand out superstar. In the first game Jones occupied the right hand side to support Rafael in the hope of occupying the areas where Sir Alex anticipated Ronaldo would operate. With Rooney also playing on the right this worked fairly well, but this strategy meant that United surrendered space elsewhere, space which Di Maria and Ozil looked to exploit. United rode their luck at times in the first half before Sir Alex made adjustments and defended on a narrower front in the second half. We would expect a similar narrow defence, with as a consequence space being available to Madrid in wide areas. If Madrid uses this space will they whip crosses in and do they have forwards who can exploit balls into the box? The evidence in from the first game is that Ronaldo is their best centre-forward, so the danger appears to be when he is central and others are wide.
- Welbeck is likely to play. He is an awkward player for defenders. At times he appears all arms and legs, seemingly never quite in control of his body, never mind the ball. His movement is good, even if he often doesn’t have the composure to exploit the positions he finds himself in as a consequence. We don’t think Ramos has ever seen anything like Welbeck and he certainly struggled to deal with him. If he does play Ramos could be in for a difficult and challenging night.
- After the first game we made the point that the Rooney Kagawa combination was interesting. Kagawa started well, but faded as he often seems to do. Playing Kagawa centrally creates a bit of a problem as he doesn’t seem to have much defensive nous. He stayed high, as did Rooney Van Persie and Welbeck in the first half and this worried Real, ensuring that they couldn’t concentrate solely on attack, but this contributed to the amount of space in front of Carrick. Rooney in the middle might have tracked back more, but in truth he has often failed to do this when asked. Rooney might be the key player at Old Trafford. The attention paid to him in the Spanish press before the first leg suggests that he is a player they fear.
- In view of the fact that width could be decisive who will Sir Alex select in wide positions? Valencia is having a disappointing season, but he is a strong player with sound defensive sensibilities. Against Reading recently after an injury to Jones, Valencia moved to full-back with Nani tending to move narrow ahead of him. This provided space for Valencia to attack and both Valencia and Nani had their best games for some time. Is this a strategy that Sir Alex has in mind? Rooney played on the right in Madrid, but this change would allow Rooney to move to the middle to strengthen the spine. Valencia is at his most dynamic when running from deep, his pace being decisive over the second ten yards, not the first. Nani could play the sort of role that Park used to play, all running, pressing the opposition, but always with an eye on the quick break away. If United stay narrow in defence and Madrid take the invitation to commit players into wide areas in attack, this could leave space for United to break into.
This game is going to be tight and could go either way. United must be patient, resolute in defence and clinical when the chances come. The prospect is mouthwatering!
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