When the original Ronaldo scored his hat-trick at Old Trafford, he was famously applauded off the pitch by the home fans. Only this week, Alex Ferguson was comparing him to Cristiano, dismissing the Brazilian variant as "the older, fatter one." It'll be interesting to see if United's former star can replicate those heights tonight, but it's more than possible. Even if Phil Jones' injury turns out to be a classic Ferguson smokescreen and he starts, fit as a fiddle, it's likely that Ronaldo will be enjoying plenty of space tonight.
There's been a common trend when these two teams have met, and it usually goes with a tight first leg and a raucous blockbuster of a second. It seems history will continue down that road: Manchester United don't have to attack, but it's likely they will. The sense of occasion, when this significant, tends to make keeping a lid on things next to impossible, particularly when added to United's defensive frailties. Conveniently, those past meetings with Madrid have come when United are set up largely as they are now - not at their most solid or unforgiving, but decisive enough in the key areas to pose a danger to any team. The 2006-2009 team aside, it is the Ferguson way, and it rarely lends itself towards pure discipline being an option, as it was against Barcelona in 2008.
Many United fans will embrace this, seeing it as embodying the spirit of the club in launching an all-out-assault. At the very least, even to disregard strategy, it does pose the question of why you support a football club at all if you forego the chance to go hell-for-leather at the world's most famous football club on your own turf.
Bernard Niven, in the anthology Deepest Red, notes that the 'United way' is a more complex beast, rather than "the unremitting instinct to attack, attack, attack, attack, attack." Citing United's overriding of Matt Busby's defensive instruction against Benfica in 1966, Niven points out the comparison with the latter-day United. "Busby had bred a team, and players, who overrode even his own occasional caution. Compare this with United's 2008 Champions League semi-final first leg against a shakier Barcelona side than anyone has faced since. Despite fielding a strong attacking line-up, United played with grim defensiveness, scraping a goalless draw. United went on to lift the trophy, but many United fans still view that game with deep distaste, as a betrayal of The United Way which tainted the eventual triumph."
Of course, the past is a foreign country, and 2008 is a very long time ago in United years. This current team, while not at the same level, seems more Busby-esque. Ferguson is surely too old for yet another Damascene conversion to attacking football in his dotage, even if he did express his regret at cautious tactics costing them the title last year. Rather, United's players, shape and style of play draws them into high-tempo, attacking football. When it comes to keeping control of possession, United are a long way from the first rate, but they have put together more sublime passing moves than almost anyone in Europe this season. They struggle to get the ball down, but are devastating when they do, and are thus propelled to move it forwards as quickly as possible so their talented forward line can make use of it in the final third.
This all sounds good, but the reality is, it favours Real Madrid more than anyone. United can't rely on keeping things tight - it's a poor strategy when one goal is enough to finish you off, and you're playing a team that possesses a multitude of players that can score from absolutely nothing, and one in particular who has excelled at doing it for years. If anyone knows of Ronaldo's ability to pull something out of the bag to achieve a narrow victory over a doggedly-defensive team, it will be Alex Ferguson. And yet the alternative option, an open, high-scoring encounter, would favour Real too. History leads us down that path when the two teams meet, and history has usually benefited Madrid.
A 2-2, a 3-3, perhaps even the more recently-popular 4-4 would not be unlikely results given the tendency of both sides to play fast, end-to-end football. All three would see United go out without having suffered defeat, left to muse on what might have been, perhaps casting their thoughts back to the Bernabeu, Ryan Giggs delaying his shot and Robin van Persie missing a sitter. All that only leads United to redouble their strategy though - they can't ever really be sure of progression at any point in the tie, so best to go all-out and not let up until the whistle. It might be exactly how José Mourinho will want them to play, but as it stands it's the only way possible.