The world’s richest football clubs Real Madrid and Manchester United meet tonight here in a Champions League last 16 first-leg tie described by Jose Mourinho as “the match the world is waiting for”.
Alex Ferguson takes his United side to the Spanish capital after extending their lead at the top of the EPL to 12 points with Sunday’s 2-0 win at home to Everton.
The meeting also marks the latest installment in the Ferguson-Mourinho duel with the Scot emerging triumphant last time the pair locked horns as United dispatched Mourinho’s former employers Inter Milan 2-0 on aggregate at the same stage of the 2008-09 competition.
His current Madrid side is sixteen points behind Barcelona in La Liga and only the delivery of a tenth Champions League title to the famous old club would be enough to appease his critics.
Mourinho’s reign at Madrid has been a tumultuous one this season, with a series of dressing room disputes between the Portuguese coach and his players.
However, one of the club’s captains Sergio Ramos feels the tension in the Madrid camp has been overplayed and that his team is motivated for the United game.
“It’s more a case of things that people said that weren’t true than a reality of conflicts in the dressing room,” Ramos told English Sunday newspaper ‘The Observer’.
“If there are problems in the dressing room or if the relationship is bad and stories are published that can create issues and affect you, it generates a problem. But when there are no problems and people invent it, it does not matter,” added Ramos, who was dropped by Mourinho and told to train apart from the squad for several weeks earlier this season.
Despite the problems, Madrid are enjoying some good form, losing only once in twelve outings in all competitions, and it is two years since they lost a Champions League game at the Santiago Bernabeu when Barcelona were the victors.
Cristiano Ronaldo will face his old club on the back of another hat-trick in the 4-1 win over Sevilla and his attack partner Gonzalo Higuain is convinced their side can beat United in the Bernabeu.
“With our individual quality and counter-attacking play we can do a lot of damage to United. We have to keep it solid at the back and find our winning mentality and team spirit,” he said.
Madrid are almost at full strength and the inclusion or not of Portuguese centre-half Pepe is Mourinho’s big dilemma. Pepe has recovered from an ankle injury in time, but has not played a minute since the turn of the year and only started training last week.
French youngster Raphael Varane or the experienced Ricardo Carvalho are the alternatives to partner Ramos in the centre of defence. The return of Xabi Alonso in midfield will be key for them.
He was rested against Sevilla after suffering discomfort last week and missed the Spain friendly against Uruguay but trained on Monday and should be ready.
Meanwhile, United rested Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Ashley Young and Shinji Kagawa against Everton, but with rivals Manchester City losing on Saturday, Ferguson did not introduce the wholesale changes he had promised.
United are undefeated in fourteen games and Ferdinand told UEFA.com that former teammate Ronaldo is the key man to stop. “You get as many people around the ball when he’s got it as possible, but Madrid are that good a side you have to make sure you’re set up right and that your team are in good positions all over the pitch to defend,” Ferdinand said.
Real Madrid 3
Man United 2
>> Real Madrid have won five of their last six matches at the Santiago Bernabeu and are unbeaten in their last 33 home matches in all competitions (W27, D6).
>> The Spanish champions have won three of their eight previous meetings with Manchester United in European competition (W3, D3, L2).
>> Cristiano Ronaldo made 292 appearances for United between 2003 and 2009, scoring 118 goals.
>> Manchester United are unbeaten in their last 14 matches across all competitions, but have won just four of their last nine away games (W4, D3, L2).
>> The three-time European champions have a poor record on Spanish soil, having registered only two wins in 20 previous visits (W2, D8, L10).
>> Sir Alex Ferguson has emerged victorious in just two of his 14 prior encounters with Madrid counterpart Jose Mourinho (W2, D6, L6).