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Scouting Real Madrid's Competition: Manchester United

In recent years, Manchester United and Real Madrid have produced beautiful football when they meet. Many consider the quarter-final tie between the two sides in 2003 to be the finest in history. That encounter even had repercussions that will be felt in the match on Wednesday: it was reportedly the first match Roman Abramovich ever watched and it was love at first sight. He promptly bought Chelsea and brought in Europe's brightest young prospect to manage the team. It was a certain José Mourinho - who eventually ended up in Spain and will oversee Madrid in this latest meeting between the sides.

Jose Mourinho watches Manchester United play Everton.
Jose Mourinho watches Manchester United play Everton.
Shaun Botterill

Historical Notes

The greatest European final in history: Real Madrid v Eintracht Frankfurt (7-3) in 1960. It was played at Hampden Park and Alex Ferguson attended the match, enthralled.

In 2000, Madrid's manager Vincente del Bosque changed his formation for the first time to three in the back to meet Alex Ferguson's Manchester United. Fernando Redondo had the night of his life at Old Trafford. Roy Keane scored an own goal. This account of the tie is highly recommended for those who want a trip down memory lane.

In 2003 the sides met again one year after Madrid won La Novena. Rumours were already flying that David Beckham would leave United. The first leg at the Bernabeu (3-1) was probably, in hindsight, the high-water mark of the first Galáctico period. During the second leg, David Beckham started on the bench after his falling out with Ferguson after the famous "Incident of the Flying Cleat." His goal after coming on as a substitute started a come-back that almost saw Manchester manage to turn the tie around after, incredibly, going 5-1 down on aggregate early during the second leg. It ended 4-3 to Manchester: an incredible 6-5 on aggregate as Madrid advanced.

Within months, Beckham had gone to Madrid in football's most famous transfer. United's assistant coach, Carlos Queiroz, replaced del Bosque.

Manchester United: State of the Team

There was a time last season when Manchester United looked to have serious difficulties. Teams visiting Old Trafford were not only winning, they were winning in style. The stadium had seemingly lost its ability to intimidate. "Noisy Neighbours" City had what looked like an insurmountable lead in the league table.

But United normally begin their season slowly before settling into auto-pilot. In an interesting turn of events, culminating in one of the most dramatic final days of the English league, City lost an 8 point lead to United, who then got their own 8 point lead, before the teams ended up level on points but with City ahead on goal difference for the final match-day.

Sergio Agüero scored in the final minute of extra-time for Manchester City on that final day and the rest is history.

But there are lessons to take away from that season. It was not a vintage Ferguson team in terms of quality - and yet in some ways it was still a vintage Ferguson team. The contradiction needs some explanation. They did not yet have Robin van Persie, arguably the world's most in-form striker. The team were kicked out of the Champions League in the group stage and lost to Athletic Bilbao in the last sixteen of the Europa league. The games Manchester played, most particularly early in the season, were often dull 1-0 affairs.

But they still challenged and nearly won. There is also an irony to losing the league in extra-time: Manchester are a team that under Ferguson, don't know when they are beaten. If Manchester has a "style" or a culture that would be the definition. "Fergie time" - as extra time at Old Trafford is termed by embittered opposition fans - has its reputation for a reason. Ferguson's teams fight until the final minute. They not infrequently win games in extra-time.

Their success this season - essentially having sewn up the league by February - is down to form difficulties in their nearest opponents but also down to their own bloody-mindedness. It's easy to forget, looking at the table with United 12 points clear as of yesterday, that United frequently went a goal down earlier in the season only to win. Or that they struggled with injury. Or that appearances in Europe in the group stages of the Champions League were puzzlingly difficult affairs. Or even that they were considered (and still can be) rather porous at the back.

But any niggling confidence issues after last year's incredible bad luck have long since been put to rest. The match against Everton only this weekend showed United at its terrifying best: 2 goals ahead early on, Robin van Persie scoring and assisting, and difficulties from earlier in the season in controlling games seemingly resolved. Everton never looked like scoring once United had their lead.

Real Madrid are widely considered to be entering this game with a boost in confidence after beating Sevilla. Manchester United have the same advantage. Unless they manage a spectacular collapse, the league looks to be theirs.

Tactical Notes

The Manchester of this year has a quality about them that fans of Madrid will recognize from watching their own team; they are never more dangerous than when it looks as though an opponent is gaining an advantage. The recent Mancunian derby is a perfect example of how "playing well" against Manchester United simply means giving them an opportunity to break and score.

Manchester City began the game by dominating, pressing with a high line, and monopolizing possession. United, when they managed to get the ball, couldn't string two passes together. It looked at one point as though they might never get out of their own half. Then they broke once and scored. They counter-attacked again and got the second goal. Had someone turned off the game after the opening quarter hour and read of the result later it would have been a shock, such was City's temporary control of the match.

This is not to say that this year's United are infallible. A more recent match would be the game against Tottenham three weeks ago. It is of interest since Tottenham took points off United twice this season: winning at Old Trafford, and drawing in the final moments at White Hart Lane.

From Madrid's point of view it is also tactically instructive because it was played (ultimately unsuccessfully) to prevent Tottenham breaking into space. It's simplistic to call Tottenham "a counter-attacking side" (indeed, their manager - Mourinho protégé André Villas Boas - favours a possession-based game) but the line-up was likely arranged to contain Gareth Bale.

The line-up in that match was interesting: Shinji Kagawa did play behind Robin van Persie. The defence were Evra, Nemanja Vidić, Ferdinand and Rafael da Silva while Cleverley, Carrick, Jones and Welbeck completed the midfield.

Manchester played well without the ball. Welbeck, Cleverley and Kagawa were a fluid midfield that frequently dropped back to form a sort of 4-4-1-1 to contain Tottenham's wingers. It was a line-up built to absorb pressure and counter-attack.

Casual observers will note the absence of Nani and Valencia. This is likely why United were ultimately unsuccessful against Tottenham: it was too difficult for them to bring the ball forward quickly enough and van Persie had an unusually lethargic game.

Madrid are also a team that counter-attack well. As such, it isn't unreasonable to suppose that United may try similar tactics as those deployed against Tottenham. At any rate: their success in this system depends on the work of their wingers.

From Madrid's perspective, the tactical battle will be to draw United out. Ditto for United where Madrid is concerned. It is highly unlikely that either manager will be unaware of the way the other team plays or that Madrid and United have similar strengths. For that reason it is a pair of games that may come down, more than usually, to individual displays on the night.

From a neutral's perspective the best result for a spectacle would probably be an early goal from one of the sides.

Line-up Notes

Trying to guess at United's line-up is difficult. Yesterday, Ferguson admitted in his post-Everton-match interview that City's loss to Southampton meant that he ditched plans to rest 7 players. Instead Ferdinand, Kagawa, Carrick and Young were left on the bench. All except Kagawa are expected to start.

More interestingly, Phil Jones was in the line-up against Everton and man-marked (with no great subtlety) Marouane Fellaini straight out of the game. The same player helped da Silva deal with Bale against Tottenham. Ryan Giggs, nearly 22 years after debuting against Everton for United, had a brilliant game, but is not expected to start.

Nani (who appears to be out-of-favour) did not play, but Valencia did. Whether this means either starts on Wednesday is anyone's guess.

The Venue

When Madrid visit Old Trafford for the second leg it will be a visit to one of the great stadiums of Europe. It is not as large as the Santiago Bernabéu, but it is very atmospheric. Players walk onto the pitch through a tunnel slanting in such a way that an interesting acoustic effect is felt. Players have described it as walking into a wall of sound.

Less finicky and more openly loyal than your typical Bernabéu crowd, one can also expect the ticket holders at Old Trafford to give their team some considerable support until well into Fergie time.

Cristiano Ronaldo, a Manchester United hero (winner of the treble in 2008, arguably the best forward ever to play in the Premier League, and the club's first World Player of the Year in 40 years since George Best) is likely to receive a warm welcome that may surprise Madrid fans - at least for the warm-up. Alex Ferguson said this week he rates Ronaldo above Zinedine Zidane as the greatest of Madrid's Galácticos. In 2007 he stated that for "vision and technique" Ronaldo had no equal. That affection and esteem from his former manager is well reflected in the crowd, who continue to chant his name on match-day.

With rumours circulating about a possible return for Ronaldo to Manchester, Madrid face a reversal of the psychology behind the rumours in 2003 about David Beckham.

The Manager

But had Ferguson not been so open in his regard for Ronaldo in the past we may have suspected a typical Fergusonian mind-game.

Alex Ferguson provides an interesting contrast to José Mourinho - in character, in disposition, but also in public perception. Like Mourinho he is no stranger to controversy (and was fined £12,000 only this week by the FA for haranguing a linesman) or lengthy touch-line bans. Nor are his post-match comments, really, any less inflammatory than Mourinho's. For Mourinho's famous post-match complaints about Barcelona after the first leg of the semi-final in 2011, there is the recent example of Ferguson furiously munching away on Wrigley's chewing gum, staring into the middle distance and complaining about "typical Germans, typical Germans" after his team were defeated on aggregate following an acrimonious tie with Bayern Munich in 2010 (before they were defeated, in turn, by Mourinho's Inter Milan in the final).

It has, in many ways, been Mourinho's decade - 2 Champions Leagues, two trebles, 7 league titles, every single domestic cup on offer in three leagues ("he's a greedy bastard" is how Ferguson has recently described him in ITV's 2011 documentary on Mourinho) - but Ferguson also has his recent achievements. He seeks to reach his 4th European final in 6 years at Wembley this year and he won the treble with United two years before Mourinho won it a second time with Inter. He has stated openly, and many times, that Manchester are a team that should have more European cups.

Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho are friends - last seen together taking tea before Madrid played the Citizens in Manchester earlier this season in the Champions League group stage. One of the classic "lines" to come out of Mourinho's tenure at Chelsea (besides "eggs and omelets" and the famous bird-flu exchange) involved Sir Alex and the post-match drink they always shared.

We laughed, we drank. And to be fair, when we go - when we go to Man United - I will take a very good bottle of wine. Because the wine we drank, it was very bad.

There is a considerable difference in the public perception of the two coaches, however. The reasons are two-fold and both are linked. Ferguson is a company man - he's been at Manchester United for more than two decades. Mourinho is the coaching equivalent of the jet-setter. But more importantly: Ferguson coaches in England. Mourinho has coached in the poisonous press atmosphere of Italy and Spain.

When Mourinho says he "loves English football" it is possible he means he loves the style. What is more likely is that he misses life without Marca - a society in which football is important but relegated to the back page.

And in addition to stories about Ronaldo wanting a return to England we have the persistent rumour that Ferguson wants Mourinho to replace him.

Final Thoughts

Mourinho had an unhappy result in 2009 at Old Trafford for his last visit. Ferguson's team (who would make their second consecutive final that year) kicked Inter to the curb in a game where the billing was similar to this one. Then it was "Zlatan Ibrahimovic vs Cristiano Ronaldo" (insert van Persie 4 years later) and "Fergie vs Mou."

Ferguson was playing then with perhaps the best team he has ever assembled (the treble winning side of the previous year). He has said recently he considers the current side his best - though this is widely regarded as a fib to motivate his players. Arguments aside: they are 12 points clear in their league and their season does not require salvaging.

Madrid are in the interesting position of being well adrift of first place (and second, for that matter) with only the league cup competition and the greatly desired "La Décima" left to save a disappointing season. Ferguson himself said this week that the European Cup means something to Madrid that it means to no other club - most especially with such disappointing domestic results.

Mind games? Well, perhaps. But it's also true.

The teams will meet on Wednesday, February 13 for the first leg.

*Tottenham won at Old Trafford and drew at White Hart Lane. This piece has been edited to reflect that.

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