Real Madrid vs Manchester United is not the biggest game of club football of all time. It is not the game with the two best sets of players, the game with the most at stake, the most bitterly-fought, or the most hotly-anticipated. On the other hand, you will struggle to find one with more context, background, and potential storylines diverging from this point. In that sense, this is undoubtedly the big one.
On paper, of course, it shouldn't be a tight contest. Manchester United are a team set to coast to the Premier League title, potentially with a record points haul, but they are a strange lot. A true rabble, consisting of a world-class strikeforce and a right-back, backed up by a gang of assorted wrong-shaped pegs, you'll-dos, and kids. It's symptomatic of the hit-and-miss transfers and the narrow width by which true lasting glory has eluded the latter Ferguson era that almost every player on United's team is either formerly world-class, was once tipped to be world-class, or will hope to be world-class one day. There are very few that actually currently meet the criteria.
As with the situation on the pitch, things have rarely gone entirely to plan but United have found a way to make it work. The reason they are top of the league can be explained with two additional factors. Firstly, that they have been fortunate with the timing of the form of the likes of Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney - both have been anonymous for large swathes of the season but have produced handfuls of utterly decisive performances. Secondly, they owe a huge debt to the staggering incompetence of their enemies. And yet nobody expects anything other than a close game.
The first reason for this is largely that Alex Ferguson knows his squad inside-out: it may be filled with players whose presence in any first eleven will negate any claims to being the best team in the world, but it has perhaps more options and styles in it than any other, all of which are known intimately by the manager. Manchester United are playing above themselves, and Real Madrid beneath themselves. The playing field is more or less level.
The second reason is because this game is, simply, too big to fail. It has too many stars, of players and managers, (and too many dodgy defenders and goalkeepers) to be anything other than a blockbuster. A World Cup Final can be a dull, negative affair, but only a game like this, with so much going on yet so little riding on the result, can produce that unbearable oh-my-god-here-we-go cocktail of nerves, fear and excitement upon kick-off. We know at the end we will have discovered something, we will have been surprised, and that the unexpected will occur.
The biggest shadow hanging over the game that makes it such a monumental occasion is not Cristiano Ronaldo's return to United, but rather Jose Mourinho's potential replacement of Ferguson at Old Trafford, the mostly intimidating and problematic succession since Alexander the Great went off to the big gymnasium in the sky. The saga concerning the other Alex just about matches it for the many alternate histories it could unleash, for everyone knows that diverging from Ferguson's retirement is a web of many dark roads, dead-ends, and probably only a handful of shining paths.
One of them will involve José Mourinho, but we are no closer to finding out how likely it is to be taken. The appointment will take place in a web of intrigue concerning a number of characters, from Ferguson, the Glazers, Mourinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Qatari aristocrats, Jorge Mendes, and who knows else. It is a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, concealed in a conspiracy, hidden round the back of a paradox and sellotaped to the underside of a conundrum. Everybody involved will have a plan, and by the end of it, a few people are going to see their dreams fulfilled, and a few more are going to get absolutely screwed.
Sadly, we may never know the full details of it, but we do know that José is involved somehow. His season so far has been an abject failure, he's made enemies within and without the club, burned bridges, and if rumours are to be believed, started a civil war behind the scenes at the Bernabeu. And yet he doesn't seem flustered. He still sits in the same seat, wisecracking, looking smug, and above all possessing the all-knowing confidence of a man who is witnessing a plan coming together. Only he knows what it is, but you can be sure it's a big one.
All that and more comprise the context with which these two teams go face-to-face. And despite it all, the funny thing is that we have no idea if it will have any impact at all. Will Ferguson leave if he wins a third Champions League trophy? Will José get the sack if he loses? Will his performance affect any decisions at Old Trafford concerning his appointment? Nobody knows, and it could just as easily be the most crucial game in the history of football as an utter irrelevance, a sideshow played out on a board where every piece has been in place for years. What will be guaranteed is pure, distilled, theatre. And really, that's all we ask.