As a football-enjoying public, we can all thank Borussia Dortmund for their fantastic performances in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League. Without them, Real Madrid would not have finished second in their group, and without that, it wouldn't have been possible for Los Merengues to match up with Manchester United in the Round of 16.
On Wednesday, two of the world's best teams face off, with two of the most interesting and tactically adept managers in the world in either dugout. A number of Red Devils supporters will hope it's a showdown between the present and future managers of the club. Whoever progresses from their tie will join Barcelona and Bayern Munich as one of the favorites to win the competition, and no one would be surprised if it took more than 180 minutes to decide who goes through.
In recent weeks, Alex Ferguson has seemingly prepared his team for what's to come by trying out a new formation, with Phil Jones as a defensive midfielder. He's played the position before -- for United, Blackburn and England -- but has been primarily used as a defender for club and country recently. He's taken to the role well, and is expected to be a key part of Ferguson's plan to contain Cristiano Ronaldo.
Jose Mourinho might do some interesting things with his team as well. After a long stretch of time in which the Real Madrid team picked itself due to injuries and suspensions, Mourinho finally has close to a full team at his disposal and has plenty of options. Young Raphael Varane is Madrid's best central defender on form, while Michael Essien has proven equally adept at fullback and defensive midfield. Jose Maria Callejon has re-emerged as a great option for Mourinho, while Karim Benzema got a surprise run on the wing this weekend.
With the more talented squad, at home, Mourinho probably won't try anything too crazy, but it's still very difficult to predict his team for the match.
Pepe is finally back for Madrid after a long injury layoff. He seems likely to start, especially since Varane is questionable with a hamstring injury. Xabi Alonso is fighting a nagging groin problem, but is widely expected to start the match. The only key player who Mourinho will not have at his disposal is Iker Casillas, who has a broken wrist. New signing Diego Lopez will start in his place.
Ferguson got a bit of a scare when Jones, his ace in the hole, pulled up hurt over the weekend, but he's been declared fit to play on Wednesday. Jonny Evans, also a slight doubt, should be fit to play. He may or may not start, depending on Ferguson's faith in his older defenders to keep up with Madrid's quick attackers. Paul Scholes has been left home in Manchester, while Ashley Young makes the trip after recovering from a recent knee injury. Don't expect Young to start, however.
Projected lineups (left to right)
Alex Ferguson vs. Jose Mourinho: Ultimately, players decide games. Especially players of the quality that Madrid and United have, who can destroy tactical gameplans with one moment of pure brilliance. These are two of the most intelligent and adaptive managers in the game, however, and it wouldn't be surprising to see this tie turn into a chess match. The above lineups could be completely wrong, and no one would bat an eyelash. Always expect the unexpected from Mourinho and Ferguson.
Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Phil Jones: That said, Jones should play a part. Ronaldo will definitely play a part. If Jones play, it's likely to be in midfield, where he'll end up seeing a lot of Ronaldo. If he makes a surprise start at right back, he'll see a lot of Ronaldo. He's going to have to deny service and easy shooting lanes to Cristiano, while also making a couple of spectacular tackles. United's defense and goalkeeping has been average this year, so Ronaldo will need to be slowed down before he gets to them.
Wayne Rooney vs. his tendency to do whatever he wants: If Wayne Rooney starts literally anywhere but in the hole behind Robin van Persie, he's going to have to fight his tendency to come deep and drift centrally. It's not that Rooney's an unintelligent player who is incapable of following tactical instructions, but he has an overwhelming desire to impact the game in any way he can. As long as the score as 0-0 or better, he'll probably stay disciplined. If United get behind? Look for the old Wayne Rooney to break out.
Manchester United aren't going to win at the Bernabeu on Wednesday, and that's okay. They do, however, have to give themselves a good chance to overturn whatever less than fantastic result they achieve in the match. A scoring draw would be a stellar result for United, and between their assumed tactics and Madrid's recent average defensive performances, they've got a good shot to get it. 1-1 draw.