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  • Manchester United v Real Madrid, Champions League

For one night only, the world will be watching

ESPN staff
March 5, 2013
Can Cristiano lift Real Madrid above Manchester United at Old Trafford? © Getty Images
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"The world will stop to watch this tie, which doesn't look like a tie - it looks like a final."

Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho, rarely one to underestimate the magnitude of anything (least of all his own abilities), spoke for many when he attempted to describe the blockbuster nature of Tuesday's Champions League tie at Old Trafford.

Two of the biggest and most talented teams in Europe, evenly poised at 1-1 after the first leg, will battle it out at one of the most impressive grounds on the continent to see who deserves to reach the quarter-finals of the competition.

It is a true showpiece occasion, one worthy of a much grander stage. The final at Wembley would have been a fitting venue for such a meeting - although perhaps football fans should simply consider themselves fortunate just to have been granted the opportunity to witness such a contest.

The match is deserving of all the hype it has received on its sporting merits alone, but there are sub-plots, too - as there always seem to be in modern football. Of course there is the return of Cristiano Ronaldo, who faces his old club on his old stomping ground for the first time since making his world record £80 million move to Spain in 2009. Can the Portuguese lead Los Blancos past his old side - in the process helping Mourinho to another memorable win over the manager he hopes to replace?

Sir Alex Ferguson, at 71, is perhaps beyond worrying about petty matters like revenge - but surely he will want to avoid another gut-wrenching European knockout defeat to Mourinho on his own turf, after that Costinho-inspired defeat to Porto back in 2004.

Real Madrid are coming into the game after a big win over Barcelona © Getty Images
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Then there is a prior loss to Real, inspired by the older, original Ronaldo, the Scot's side suffered a year before that - a game Ryan Giggs, still an key cog in the current Manchester United crop, was around at the time to experience. The Welshman, the ultimate poster boy for longevity, should make his 1000th professional appearance in Tuesday's game.

United's team these days might be significantly improved from that vintage, but Real's cohort is hardly shabby either. Buoyed by two recent victories over Barcelona the squad could hardly be in higher spirits - but are two such important fixtures the ideal build-up for a third draining encounter, or will those matches have proven to take more out Mourinho's side than we think?

Form

Manchester United's last defeat, in any competition, came back on December 5 - when they lost at home to CFR Cluj in a Champions League group stage contest that held no meaning for the Premier League leaders. The stakes could hardly be more different this time around.

Ignoring the Bernabeu draw with Real, United have won their last seven successive games - with a comfortable home win over Norwich City, during which Shinji Kagawa became the first Asian player to score a hat-trick in the Premier League, their most recent result.

Since losing to Granada in shock circumstances to start the month, Real have been imperious - with the first leg draw with United the only occasion on which they have not won. Wins against Sevilla, Rayo Vallecano and Deportivo la Coruna have all been picked up with only fleeting moments of concern - but it is the two successive Clasico victories over arch-rivals Barcelona that should have the team full of confidence heading into this meeting.

Team news

Manchester United's biggest headache has been created by the versatile Phil Jones, who was so influential in the first leg but has been ruled out of the second with a thigh injury. That leaves Ferguson with a decision to make in midfield, as he works out how to replace the former Blackburn youngster's steel and defensive instincts.

The only other significant absence for Ferguson is Paul Scholes, who is still out with a knee injury. Real Madrid, meanwhile, have almost a full complement of players to select from - bar one notable exception. He travelled with the squad to Manchester, but Mourinho confirmed on Monday evening that goalkeeper Iker Casillas is not yet fit enough to return to first-team action - meaning Diego Lopez will continue between the sticks for the away side.

Head-to-head battles

  • Michael Carrick v Xabi Alonso

    The two pass masters will look to dictate play where possible from deep

  • Robin van Persie v Sergio Ramos

    The Dutchman will hope to evade the imposing, if often hot-headed, Spaniard

  • Tom Cleverley v Mesut Ozil

    With Phil Jones out, someone must impede Real's sparkling counter-attacks

One to watch

Both sides are filled with superstars with the ability to change the course of a match almost single-handedly, but it might be a relatively unheralded player with almost all of his career still ahead of him he steals a lot of attention in this one.

Raphael Varane has been highly-touted ever since joining Real from French club RC Lens (amid strong competition from United) in 2011 but, after being brought along cautiously by Mourinho, only in the last few weeks has the 19-year-old - 19! - shown glimpses of true world-class ability. A solid performance against United in the first leg gave an indication of his burgeoning ability, but two imperious displays - both including goals - in the two keenly-contested Clasicos have taken his reputation to the next level.

In a game containing three other truly great centre-backs, Varane's inexperience may yet see him make a decisive mistake. Of course, if those who study the game have read the signs correctly, he might instead use the stage to underline his incredible potential and announce himself to worldwide audience.

Key battle

Once again, the daunting responsibility of shackling Cristiano Ronaldo will fall upon Rafael da Silva. The young Brazilian was generally impressive in the Bernabeu but, with Real likely to find they have greater opportunity to counter-attack in the second leg, he may find his task slightly different this time around.

Not only that, but Ronaldo has a huge incentive to perform well at Old Trafford - a ground where he is likely to get a grand reception ... right until the first whistle. Big games are often decided by big players, and Ronaldo will be hopeful he can come up with a trick or two that outwits his marker and, ultimately, decides the contest.

Prediction and bet

Such high-calibre games are often decided by the finest of margins, and both sides are stuffed with players capable of turning the contest on one moment of skill. The venue, based on received wisdom, would appear to aid the home side - but we feel Real might actually benefit from playing away, where they might find they have more opportunity to employ their devastating counter-attacking style.

In an entertaining game, we fancy the wily Mesut Ozil to get one of the goals as Real sneak a 2-1 away win (available at 25/1 with bet365) - progressing 3-2 on aggregate and leaving an unfortunate United to focus their remaining efforts on completing a domestic double.

Final score: 1-2 (2-3 on aggregate).

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