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 has been waiting for”.
Alex Ferguson takes his United side to the Spanish capital after extending their lead at the top of the Premier League to 12 points with Sunday’s 2-0 win at home to Everton. “The world is not waiting for other matches in the Champions League so I hope we can give the world what it has been waiting for,” purred Madrid boss Mourinho.
The meeting also marks the latest instalment in the Ferguson-Mourinho duel, with the Scot emerging triumphant last time the pair locked horns as United disptached Mourinho’s former employers Inter Milan 2-0 on aggregate at the same stage of the 2008-09 competition.
Madrid are 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 in the Spanish capital. 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 differently from the squad for several weeks earlier this season.
Despite their problems, Madrid are enjoying some good form, having lost only once in twelve outings in all competitions, and it has been two years since they lost a Champions League game at the Santiago Bernabeu to eventual victors, Barcelona.
Cristiano Ronaldo will face his old club on the back of another hat-trick in their 4-1 win over Sevilla on Saturday, and his attacking partner, Gonzalo Higuain is convinced their side can beat United at 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 since the turn of the year and only started training again last week.
French youngster, Raphael Varane, or the more experienced Ricardo Carvalho are seen as likely alternatives to partner Ramos in the centre of defence.
The return of Xabi Alonso in midfield will be key for the Spaniards. He was rested against Sevilla after suffering discomfort last week and he missed the Spanish friendly against Uruguay in midweek, but resumed training on Monday.
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.
They are undefeated in fourteen games, and Ferdinand told Uefa.com that former team-mate 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 and you have to make sure you’re set up right and that your team are in good positions all over the pitch to defend.