Right, it’s Real Madrid v Manchester United tonight in the undoubted glamour tie of the Champions League last 16 and I dare say that if this game was being played 12 months ago, bwin’s 3Way football betting market odds would have a slightly different slant to them.
This time last year, United were slugging it out with Manchester City at the top of the Premier League while also having half an eye on an upcoming continental clash with Ajax – in the Europa League.
Meanwhile, Madrid were slaughtering all before them at home and abroad en route to recapturing the Primera Division crown and in many people’s eyes, they were the strongest side on the continent last term.
I, for one, thought Jose Mourinho’s men were a shoe-in for Champions League glory as United were taught a lesson in its sister competition. How times have changed.
The Reds have now won 14 of their last 18 games in all competitions to surge clear of the domestic pack as Los Galacticos spin off into orbit.
These are troubled times at the Bernabeu, with Mourinho whoring himself out to suitors and the Spanish dressing room leaders apparently disillusioned with the Portuguese contingent.
That all makes it sound like some sort of bi-linguistic episode of Hollyoaks, but the long and short is that United have got a bloody good chance to progress here if – and it’s a big if – they don’t end up getting mullered in the first leg.
As it stands, Madrid are 3/5 favourites to set things up with a home win, with the draw and the away win both priced at 7/2.
The Spaniards are still hot favourites at 11/20 to eventually progress to the next round, with United adrift at 27/20 – yet that price could be great value if Sir Alex Ferguson’s side can successfully implement these three tactical plans.
1 – Don’t get hit on the break
Real Madrid score goals, plenty of goals, and loads of them come at home. Yet unlike Barcelona – who will dominate possession, passing it round your box for hours – Madrid are quite content to cede the ball and pick you off once they’ve got it back.
Their pace on the break is frightening. They bomb from box to box in the blink of an eye and if United get caught up field they have the speed to expose the visitors and the attacking quality to finish things off.
Ferguson’s side have made this tactic their own over the years and they certainly contain the capacity to beat Madrid at their own game.
The Scot was bullish in his pre-match press conference about beating Real but I suspect he’ll try and stitch it. This will be a defensive, counter-attacking performance and that’s the only way the Reds will get a result because they simply cannot go toe to toe with Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
2 – Exploit the flanks
Real’s wide men, Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria, are a dab hand going forward but their repertoire doesn’t really include tracking back to help their own full-backs.
Mourinho will deploy Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira as the two holding players with a triumvirate of attacking midfielders floating ahead and that often leaves Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Coentrao exposed.
Against lesser teams that matters little as Real’s full-backs double up as auxiliary wingers, but if United soak up pressure and break, they need to ferry it out wide at the first available opportunity and get Shinji Kagawa (if included), Antonio Valencia and, potentially, Wayne Rooney steaming at their opposite numbers.
3 – Shoot on sight
Madrid custodian Iker Casillas will be sidelined through injury and his deputies have barely convinced in his absence.
Antonio Adan was an absolute disaster of a replacement prior to Christmas, prompting Mourinho to sign Diego Lopez from Sevilla.
But while he’s a decent stopper with prior experience in the Champions League, Lopez can be prone to rash decision-making and with centre-back Pepe potentially being half-baked having been rushed back from injury for this tie – the 26 minutes he played in the weekend win over Sevilla were his first since Christmas – Real could have a soft centre.
United’s forward threats of Rooney and Robin van Persie need no encouragement to have a crack at goal and they should be looking to test Lopez at every available opportunity.
Once again, this will be all about whether United can penetrate on the break and if they can, you’d back them to get past the final flimsy line of resistance.