The best match of the round gets played Tuesday, when Real Madrid go to Old Trafford needing to score to advance past Manchester United.
The most intriguing tie in the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League has lived up to its billing. Manchester United and Real Madrid were both excellent in their 1-1 draw at the Santiago Bernabeu, and there is no clear favorite for Tuesday's return leg at Old Trafford.
Danny Welbeck's surprising goal has United in a position to progress with a 0-0 draw, but this is possibly the least defensively adept Manchester United side that Alex Ferguson has managed. In previous years, with the likes of Park Ji-Sung and younger, healthier versions of Darren Fletcher and Nemanja Vidic, he may have played for a clean sheet in this situation. This year's Red Devils simply aren't built for that kind of game, and it's unlikely that Ferguson will attempt to play it.
Similar things can be said about Real Madrid and Mourinho, who has masterminded massive knockout competition victories by using defensive, counter-attacking tactics for a decade, with Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid. He's yet to break out that strategy in any edition of El Clasico or in Champions League this season, and he's probably not going to start with this match.
While there are a few lingering injury concerns for both sides, most of each teams' stars are 100 percent fit, and neither manager is missing any of their top attacking options. The biggest concern for either team is Phil Jones, the Manchester United utility man who was used to stifle Cristiano Ronaldo in the first leg of this tie.
Jones and Paul Scholes are expected to be absent for Manchester United, leaving Alex Ferguson's side a bit light in the center of midfield. Of course, because the game is in Manchester, Ferguson didn't have to decide who to take to the game and Jones could make a miraculous recovery. Ferguson almost certainly was hoping to use Jones as an anchor man, keeping an eye on Cristiano Ronaldo, but he'll have to adjust his plans in his absence. He doesn't have another player perfectly suited for the role, so he might adopt a completely different plan entirely.
Madrid rested a number of key players against Barcelona over the weekend and managed to beat their rivals anyway. That rest was likely enough to get Xabi Alonso, who has a lingering groin injury, into the starting XI for Jose Mourinho on Tuesday. Iker Casillasremains out with a broken thumb.
Projected lineups (left to right)
Real Madrid (4-2-3-1): Diego Lopez; Fabio Coentrão, Sergio Ramos, Raphäel Varane, Alvaro Arbeloa; Sami Khedira, Xabi Alonso; Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Özil, Angel Di Maria; Gonzalo Higuain
Alex Ferguson vs. Jose Mourinho: The players have to play the game, but two of the best managers in the world will have a big chance to make their impact on this tie. Both teams have almost all of their best players available -- save for the likely absence of Phil Jones from the United team -- and have plenty of tactical options. Neither is married to any set of players or any formation. Don't be stunned if they pick teams they haven't chosen at any point this season.
Xabi Alonso vs. Manchester United's counter-attacking: While Sami Khedira'sathleticism and tenacity makes up for Xabi Alonso's lack of both, the Spaniard is still useful defensively in most matches. He's been battling a bit of a groin problem, so it wouldn't be surprising if his mobility was limited. United might have more chances to counter through the center than they would if he was fully fit.
Rafael vs. Cristiano Ronaldo: Manchester United did an excellent job of limiting the number of times that Rafael and Ronaldo were involved in one-on-one battles in the first leg. However, with Jones likely out of United's lineup, Rafael is going to see a lot more of Madrid's superstar attacker in the second leg. Ronaldo got the better of him a couple of times in the first leg, and should have more opportunities to attack down the left flank this time around unless Ferguson has a trick up his sleeve.
Real Madrid get a bit too risky going forward against United's attack, but do end up scoring one themselves. Los Merengues win in extra time or on penalties after a 1-1 draw in regular time.
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