So here’s the deal

Ronaldo says Real Madrid are better than Manchester United and will qualify. That’s okay, we already know that. A
couple of weeks ago, I proclaimed, on facebook, that real madrid would, come May, be the champions league winners of 12/13. “Traitor”, they cried, “sellout”, rang the criticism, I remained stoic and gave my reasons for why Real Madrid will see off my beloved Manchester United. This encpasulates that phenomenon of fandom – the implicit irratiinality which demands that u support a team and keep doing so even in the face of unparalleled odds and gross imbalance in quality is perhaps what makes football and fandom such an appealing, intoxicating mix. It is argued that this connection strengthens the weaker the team is, with those fans’ bonds of love tried and tested by the stinging heat of defeat and disappointment.

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So yeah, as a Manchester united fan, we are used to success, used to being the top dogs and as such, we almost cruise through the rare difficult patches. So excuse me if I took a pragmatic approach to viewing the tie – a victory would be great and fill me with joy, a loss will be merely be minor disappointment in light of what I had predicted before. After all, we are the underdogs. Nevertheless, it’s time to don the cap of optimism topped with a feather of reason and actually examine whether Manchester united could indeed come away with the victory.

Away Leg at the Bernabayo

Statistical analysis has shown that the team that plays the second leg at home is more likely to win the tie than that which plays at home in the first leg – it’s a sizable margin as well (57-58% win the tie if second leg is at home).  Apparently, the psychological element becomes extremely crucial in such games, and this dictates approach as per tactics and strategy in the first leg.

The starting line-up and formation will be key. In goal, David De Gea will most certainly play, returning to madrid for the first time since his transfer from los rojiblancos. At right back, if there is a weakness which rafael has, it is his lack of height which has been exposed on occasion with crosses played into the far post.

Ronaldo is perhaps the most dangerous player in the world from these plays, drifting in as he is wont (he did so devastatingly for us in the champions league more than a few times) to convert thumping headers. Nevertheless, our brazilian right back has been the best in the league this season, allying tenacious, improved diligence in defending to his irrepressible attacking brio. After excelling against top quality attackers in ronaldinho, ribery and bale, ronaldo presents a slightlt different challenge – his regular drifts into the middle, coupled with the exuberant skills of marcelo are something he hasn’t faced before.

The rest of the defence will be rio ferdinand, I predict Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra. Evans offers greater mobility than Nemanja Vidic who, even in his heyday, was exposed to the mobility of Karim Benzema. Communication is key against the many headed hydra that is the madrid attack. Patrice Evra, experiencing a stellar season, will have his work cutout against the impish di maria. Although having an up and down season, his recent display for argentina illustrated that when he brings his game, he is among the most devastating players on the planet. His threat on the counter can never be ignored but importantly, and contrary to what many think, his diligence and workrate in defence is incredible.

Our team as a whole is not known for coping with pressing – and madrid does a lot of that. The focus should be on holding a solid shape, pressing in our half, before launching the counter attacks. That has been the approach which has worked in most of our big game scalps this season but perhaps most notably againsy Chelsea in our 3-2 away win. What is key is maintaining that attacking slant – gone are the days of playing for a 0-0 like we did against Barcelona in 2008. Real Madrid is too good a team to invite upon oneself without hoping to take a goal off. Which brings one to an area that los blancos struggle with – breaking down teams.

Borrussia Dortmund provided a template on how to beat Real Madrid in their two grouo games especially at the bernabayo. It all came from pressing which started in the midfield zone. Staying compact in your own half against a counter attacking team that thrives on space behind the defending team poses the challenge – break us down. Dortmund’s tactic was aided by quick, efficient transitions. Michael Carrick will be key with his improved ability on the ball while under pressure but it is arguable that Tom cleverley will play a vital role in these transitions. His one touch style of play, in theory, should work perfectly against Real Madrid’s attempts to win the ball in our midfield zone via their own pressing. Mesut Ozil, with his penchant for drifting to the flanks to provide overloads, will need to be dealt with so expect to see frequent movement of one of our centre mids towards the flanks if the german international does so. Breaking that first bank of pressure works like escaping a high pressure valve – space opens up automatically. I’m plumping for Nani to play on the left facing up against arbeloa with the returning pepe and ramos in the middle.

Wayne Rooney is the most crucial part of the team. He failed in tracking andrea pirlo at the euros and the juventus man ran the game…literally. A similar lack of awareness against real madrid will he intolerable with xabi alonso arguably the best regista in the world after pirlo. Giving him time to launch his raking diagonals to the flanks will keep us repeatedly on the backfoot. Rooney showed signs of improvement in tracking against Manchester city and chelsea which should give us some hope. Sami Khedira poses a different sort of challenge and I don’t expect rooney to follow him on his regular forays upfield. A proper box to box midfielder, carrick and cleverley need to be aware. Khedira, with good finishing, could have bagged a hattrick against Manchester city at the etihad, curious for a player who is often labelled (or mislabelled) as a defensive midfielder.

Upfront, Robin Van Persie, as genius a footballer as he is, will thrive on service. Not blessed with outstanding pace, balls in behind will almost certainly not reap any rewards. As we have seen, productive crossing has contributed to his glut of goals in his debut season (23 so far). However, and importantly, a technical player that he is, hold up play will be vital in allowing our wingers and rooney to get forward in support if we look to break with speed. Real madrid have not been infallible this season, nearly not qualifying for the second round of the competition and ‘languishing’ in 3rd position in la liga. Jordi Alba recently echoed the thoughts of many – “atletico madrid are their rivald atm, not real” – while not dismissive of real’s talent or status as barcelona’s number one rivals but certainly indicative of the problems los blancos have faced this season.
Also, San Iker is out with a broken hand and one would hope that decreased familiarity between the back line and diego lopez plays out in our favour.

It does seem counterintuitive predicting that real madrid will win the champions league before attempting to dissect how manchester united could make a game of the first leg but that’s what a fan does. Control territory or controlling possession, a key dilemma for Mr Ferguson but if recent history is anything to go by, territory, in Madrid, will be much sought after with maximum use made of whatever possession we are granted.

I’ll be watching the game on my phone – circumstances dictate so but I do hope for a great, diligent performance which will provide a foundation for the second leg. Remember the 57-58%.

Till after the game on Wednesday…

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