The world’s richest soccer clubs, Real Madrid and Manchester United, meet today in Madrid in a UEFA Champions League round-of-16 first-leg tie described by Jose Mourinho as “the match the world is waiting for.”
Alex Ferguson takes his United side to the Spanish capital after extending their lead at the top of the Premier League to 12 points with Sunday’s 2-0 win at home to Everton.
“The world is not waiting for other matches in the Champions League, so I hope we can give the world what they are waiting for,” Madrid boss Mourinho said.
The meeting also marks the latest installment in the Ferguson-Mourinho duel, with the Scot emerging triumphant last time the pair locked horns as United dispatched Mourinho’s former employers Inter 2-0 on aggregate at the same stage of the 2008-2009 competition.
His current team are 16 points behind Barcelona in La Liga and only the delivery of a 10th UEFA Champions League title to the famous old club would be enough to appease his critics in the Spanish capital.
Mourinho’s reign at Madrid has been a tumultuous one this season, with a series of dressing room disputes between the Portuguese coach and his players.
However, one of the club’s captains, Sergio Ramos, feels the tension in the Madrid camp has been overplayed and that his team are motivated for the United game.
“It’s more a case of things that people said that weren’t true than a reality of conflicts in the dressing room,” Ramos told British Sunday newspaper the Observer.
“If there are problems in the dressing room or if the relationship is bad and stories are published that can create issues and affect you, it generates a problem, but when there are no problems and people invent it, it does not matter,” added Ramos, who was dropped by Mourinho and told to train apart from the squad for several weeks earlier this season.
Despite the problems, Madrid are enjoying some good form, losing only once in 12 outings in all competitions and it is two years since they lost a UEFA Champions League game at the Santiago Bernabeu when Barcelona were the victors.
Cristiano Ronaldo is set to face his old club on the back of another hat-trick in the 4-1 win over Sevilla on Saturday and his attacking partner Gonzalo Higuain is convinced his side can beat United at the Bernabeu.
“With our individual quality and counterattacking play we can do a lot of damage to United. We have to keep it solid at the back, and find our winning mentality and team spirit,” Higuain said.
Madrid are almost at full strength and the inclusion or not of Portuguese centerhalf Pepe is Mourinho’s big dilemma.
Pepe has recovered from an ankle injury in time, but has not played since the turn of the year and only started training again last week.
French youngster Raphael Varane or the experienced Ricardo Carvalho are the alternatives to partner Ramos in the center of defense.
The return of Xabi Alonso to the midfield will be key for the Spaniards.
He was rested against Sevilla after suffering discomfort last week and he missed Spain friendly against Uruguay last week, but trained on Monday and should be ready.
United rested Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Ashley Young and Shinji Kagawa against Everton, but with rivals Manchester City losing on Saturday, Ferguson did not introduce the wholesale changes he had promised.
United are undefeated in 14 games and Ferdinand told UEFA’s Web site that former teammate Ronaldo is the key man to stop.
“You get as many people around the ball when he’s got it as possible, but Madrid are that good a side you have to make sure you’re set up right and that your team are in good positions all over the pitch to defend,” Ferdinand said. “The fans appreciated him when he was here and since he’s been gone they sing his name. He came here a young boy and left a world-class player. He showed a lot of respect when he left and still does.”