On Wednesday evening, the world will be have its eyes fixated excitedly on the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid. Two titans of European football resurrect the Champions League after the usual three-month hibernation period over Christmas and the New Year, easily eclipsing any other tie the competition has to offer this week or next. Of course, Cristiano Ronaldo facing his former employers, United, for the first time since his world-record £80m move provides a mouthwatering and unavoidable sub-plot.
Manchester United fans will have been most discomforted if they watched Ronaldo net his twentieth hat-trick in Madrid colours in just over three years. An astonishing feat, but it’s not this staggering milestone Mancunians will be trembling over, it’s the fact that a player they used to adore as one of their own sent out a frightening cautionary message four days before he prepared to take them on in his new playground. Ronaldo’s customary dismissal of Sevilla on Saturday night confirmed what everybody already knows; he destroys teams. Gary Neville, who played alongside the Portugese genius at Old Trafford for six years, today branded him a “bully” who “preys on the weaknesses of defences.” Neville is not discarding his former team-mate as a the type of bully who is going to slap Wayne Rooney on the back of the head when he’s oblivious to it or is likely to relieve Rio Ferdinand of his shorts in front of 90,000 at the Bernabeu; no, he is confirming that Ronaldo has that rare and immensely coveted quality of being able to turn a decent, hard-working performance from a defender into a unmitigated disaster. He may fail once, but he will try and try and more often than not, succeed with explosive authority. The likelihood of Ronaldo marking his reunion with Manchester United on is extremely high. His record for Madrid borders on the unimaginable. 182 goals in 179 appearances for the Spanish giants represents a simply staggering feat in attacking efficiency which just makes for grim reading for any United fan.
Ferguson has learnt over the years, especially after a Champions League exit at the hands of Madrid, that attempting to outscore competent European outfits is a recipe for disaster. He has transformed his philosophy and now attempts to contain the power and panache of top European clubs which helped his side to three finals in four years from 2008 to 2011. Fitness permitting, Ferguson is likely to deploy Phil Jones at right-back with Valencia further up to maximise work-rate on the flank in attempt to quash the relentless attacking presence of Ronaldo. Critics have in recent weeks likened Gareth Bale to Real Madrid’s flying talisman and if Phil Jones can emulate, for the most part, his tireless man-marking performance in the face of Bale two weeks ago then United may be able to come away from the first leg unscathed by Ronaldo’s magical talents.
Madrid, a one-man team? Couldn’t be further from the truth. Ever since Madrid consolidated their ‘Galacticos’ status at the zenith of world football, their squads have been peppered with a glittering and dazzling array of genuine stars. Mourinho may secretly be hoping for the high-profile Ronaldo overtones in this game to provide a platform for one of his other players to come away on Wednesday night as a hero. Be it Benzema, Ozil, Higuain or Di Maria, Real Madrid are made up of a team of outstanding individuals. Individual talents that are so pronounced, it only takes a moment of genius to turn the tie in Madrid’s favour. Sergio Ramos fearfully declared this week that “one mistake and we’re out.” Vice versa, one moment of brilliance and they may be through.
However, a 12-point lead in tact at the top of the Premier League table and a couple of hot strikers up front will instil a steady confidence in Ferguson that his men can go to one of the most intimidating crucibles in sporting theatre and deliver. Van Persie’s influence on United’s season is well-documented and deservedly so, but Wayne Rooney has returned to form with ten goals in eleven games and with Tom Cleverley coming of age in midfield, one could be forgiven for predicting that United may edge it come Wednesday.
Ronaldo is one man firmly in the spotlight this week, seemingly for all the right reasons. His manager, Jose Mourinho, however, can’t seem to avoid crippling bouts of ‘bad press’ this season a the helm of the giants from Madrid. Dethroning Barcelona as the kings of Spain was arguably Mourinho’s greatest achievement as a manager but this season has been far from them consolidating a dominant footballing dynasty either domestically, or in Europe. They have slipped to a irrecoverable position in the league this season, an almost embarrassing turn of fortunes to the previous campaign that has left supporters, critics and possibly the Madrid executives sharpening their knives. Mourinho’s position is under intense scrutiny with the majority of opinion believing that come the start of next season, he will not be standing in the Madrid dugout.
His managerial future aside, Mourinho goes head to head once again with one of his great adversaries this season in Sir Alex Ferguson. Their professional and personal association got off to a memorably prickly start in 2004 when Mourinho’s Porto masterminded a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford, knocking them out in the process and eventually proceeding to win the competition. Ferguson was furious with how Mourinho’s Porto handled themselves over the two legs, accusing them of incessant diving and time-wasting that left the Scotsman bitter and hostile towards his Portugese counterpart. Compounding his misery was the announcement that the same man was to front the Chelsea charge on English football and the two great managerial minds have played out a fascinating professional rivalry since then. Ferguson admits that if he attempts to engage in the psychological sphere with ‘mind-games’, he would lose. Mourinho has bested him in that regard in the past and Ferguson clearly does not want anything to halt his mental progress going into a match on the back of a momentous weekend in the Premier League. However, Mourinho doesn’t have the youthful charisma and strangely endearing arrogance that characterised his time in England and cuts a forlorn and sorrow figure in the Madrid dugout now. Grumpy disinterested if anything. If Ferguson was going to strike down hard on the ego of Mourinho, now would be the time. Exiting the Champions League, a competition Madrid have not won since 2002, at the last sixteen stage would surely be spell the end to Mourinho’s much discussed time at Madrid. A catalyst for a long-awaited return to England, perhaps?
On Wednesday night, the footballing world will be watching what is currently billed as the “Perfect Match.” Whether it lives up to such a grandiose brand remains to be seen, but what is guaranteed is a number of sub-plots coming to the fore in a delectable cocktail of footballing theatre. Ronaldo destroying the dreams of his former team-mates would form a stark and unforgettable headline, but a crucial away victory for Manchester United may crush Madrid’s own hopes and perhaps the future of their man in charge. A match of monumental significance and intrigue ensues.