This is what it’s all about. Forget your qualifiers and your (largely) tedious group stages: the Champions League starts now and it really doesn’t get much bigger than a two-legged tie between Real Madrid and Manchester United.
We don’t need to go over the histories of both clubs, although plenty will be made of the 12 European Cups they have between them, but with fans and management on either side claiming theirs is the biggest football club in the world, the last-16 clash between the champions of Spain and the champions-elect of England is easily the pick of the first knock-out round.
And for once, this is a match that can easily live up to its billing, even if hyperbole is bound to go into overdrive with so many great players on show and potential match winners all over the pitch.
There is intrigue everywhere: of course, Cristiano Ronaldo coming face to face with his old club will grab most of the headlines, but Jose Mourinho being Jose Mourinho, he is not going to be kept out of the limelight and with many thinking he remains in pole position to replace Sir Alex Ferguson when he eventually retires (although there is no sign of that happening imminently), there is always that interesting side plot.
Although if you knew nothing about Mourinho (even if he makes sure that is never the case), you would say that on this season’s performance, he wouldn’t have a hope in hell of landing the job at Old Trafford.
At the start of the season, the idea that Real would go into a last-16 tie in the Champions League struggling so badly domestically would have been laughable.
But Madrid come into Wednesday’s first leg third in La Liga, 16 points adrift of Barcelona and behind city rivals Atletico Madrid in the table with five away defeats in 12 league games – a woeful record for such an expensively assembled team.
Add the in-fighting between the manager and key Spanish players that has undermined their season and what initially looked like the most difficult of ties for United doesn’t seem quite as daunting as it could have been.
So it could be argued that the 3/5 on a home win looks a bit on the short side, making the 7/2 on a bang-in-form United victory big enough to be tempted in (the draw is the same price).
That said, most of Madrid’s woes have come on the road and I am going to keep faith in their phenomenal record at the Bernabeu and say that Real will be taking a much-needed lead to Old Trafford for the second leg.
Much needed is the important phrase here, because the way Real are playing on their travels, they don’t have a chance of winning in Manchester, so Mourinho will be all too aware that they require a win on Spanish soil to have any chance of going through.
Luckily for the Portuguese boss, their home record is fantastic.
Madrid just win when they play at the Bernabeu, and more often than not it is handsomely, too. Los Blancos have lost just twice at home since April 2011 and both of those were to Barcelona, a run of 54 games with just two losses against the best team in the world.
Mourinho’s side have won 13 of their last 15 at home, scoring 48 goals, and a United defence that has shown its vulnerability all season could struggle to contain a Madrid team that have lost just one of their 15 home Champions League games under the ex-Chelsea boss.
But the odds-on is of no value, so I’ll have the 5/4 that Madrid win and the match sees over 2.5 goals.
Only on five occasions in those 54 matches have Madrid scored less than one goal and a United defence that has let in 31 league goals and kept only three clean sheets on the road all year will surely succumb.
But I also expect Ferguson’s side to score a vital away goal. A total of 62 league goals and counting is excellent and with Robin van Persie in such scintillating form, United’s threat on the counter attack should see them notch at least once.
Having said that, I can’t get away from the fact that, despite United’s excellent recent form, Mourinho knows he has to win this one and when that is the case on his own patch, he normally delivers the goods.
The 5/4 on him doing so with at least three goals looks like the play here.