This is most definitely the tie of the initial knockout round, and while this first leg doesn’t quite carry the hefty drama of a long-awaited, Cristiano Ronaldo return to Old Trafford (we’ll get there eventually), it does finally satiate our appetite for a match-up that had nearly everyone bouncing off the walls on CL draw day.
The bouncing off walls was warranted though. Other than this face off coming disappointingly early in the tournament, this kind of knockout tie is pretty much what the Champions League is all about. This pits epic forces against each other like Rooney and Ron, Sir Alex Ferguson and Señor Jose Mourinho… maybe even Mou’s pointy finger and the United assistant coach’s eyeball. Who knows. There’s just a laundry list of epic duels and marquee match-ups to take in here. Let’s take a closer look at a couple of the most important factors:
So. Much. Speed… With Cristiano Ronaldo and Fabio Coentrao likely lining up on Real’s left, and Antonio Valencia and Rafael da Silva likely lining up on United’s right, there will be an extremely high concentration of fleet-footed, attack-minded players all on the same wing. Having aggressive players go against a pair of equally aggressive players down one sideline usually sets up a contest with plenty of counter attacking opportunities (as wingers and fullbacks get caught up field, out of position, etc. on the break). Unfortunately for United, that plays to a major Real Madrid strength. Over the course of an up and down season in La Liga, Mou’s men have managed to put away 8 counter attacking goals. That currently leads the Spanish league. They’ve also managed to score 12 times from set pieces and 5 times from the penalty spot… but why do those goals matter, you ask? Well, when teams are suddenly put on the back foot and forced to stifle a charging counter attack, they often commit risky challenges and ultimately costly fouls. Madrid has shown, thanks in large part to Ronaldo, that they can convert those stationary opportunities into lethal goals. Manchester United? They have yet to score on the counter. That’s Zero goals from counterattacks. They’ve been more successful with set pieces (excluding penalties which they’ve struggled with), but with the lack of counter attacking success it’s unlikely those strikes were earned from transition play.
Rooney all over… If there’s one United player that could feasibly play any position on the field at any given moment for the Red Devils, it’s certainly Wayne Rooney. He’s listed as a forward, but he’s probably better described as a creative number 10 that can make plays from the middle of the field, both winger positions, and as a striker. He brings an element of unpredictability to Manchester’s attacking contingent that makes them very difficult to game plan against… and since he’s willing to run pretty much anywhere on the field to receive the ball or make tackles, he’s almost always finding ways to impact games no matter who’s marking him. Combine those traits with his already highly developed on-field rapport with an equally dangerous Robin Van Persie, and you have Real (had to) problems. In an injury-marked EPL season Rooney already has 10 goals and 7 assists, frustrating him with deny defense and constant marshaling away from the Real goal (by Khedira and Alonso) will be key for Madrid.
This is the kind of game that tends to put a lot of focus on each team’s main threats, Ronaldo, Rooney, Van Persie, etc., but, in truth, both of these clubs are absolutely loaded, top to bottom, with talent. Kagawa, Young, Di Maria, and Ozil could all play prominent roles in this match’s outcome… and at the same time, they could all also sit on the bench in favor of guys like Welbeck, Nani, Callejon, and Modric. World class threats lurk at every position in this match-up, and that’s really the reason this game has been so highly anticipated. Truly a heavyweight bout.
(Statistics from Who Scored)