x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Bernabeu challenge is real for United in Madrid

The aura of the Bernabeu makes playing a daunting task for visiting teams, as Manchester United's record there shows.

Real Madrid's Roberto Carlos tries to shoot past Manchester United defenders (from left, Roy Keane, David Beckham, Andrew Cole, Ryan Giggs, Dwight Yorke and Paul Scholes) in 2002.
Real Madrid's Roberto Carlos tries to shoot past Manchester United defenders (from left, Roy Keane, David Beckham, Andrew Cole, Ryan Giggs, Dwight Yorke and Paul Scholes) in 2002.

A mesh fence divided the tunnel leading up to the Bernabeu pitch, Christians and lions. Visitors are usually devoured by Real Madrid, the most successful team in football history.

You can see your opponents on the other side, hear them and smell them, but you cannot shake hands as some players like to do before matches. I paid them no attention, the men in white shirts stood a metre to my left. I knew they were all there, Raul, Casillas, Redondo, Roberto Carlos, Morientes and Helguera, and the rest of the class of 2000.

I knew what they stood for and what their club meant. You cannot avoid it when you play Madrid.

The Bernabeu is probably the best stadium in the world. From the outside, it looks like a museum, a work of concrete art in the centre of the city near the other grand museums.

You arrive on an escorted coach and you are greeted by thousands of supporters in the streets. It is not hostile, it is big time.

You know who has been there before, the greats like Di Stefano, Gento and the players who won five consecutive European Cups. You know it's the pinnacle and that it is now your turn to play there.

Police hold back the crowds as you walk through the players' entrance and are guided towards the changing room. The officials are not friendly to visitors, but professional. The away dressing rooms are bigger than I have ever seen. Away dressing rooms are often an after thought with dodgy showers and no hot water, in Madrid you get jacuzzis.

Sir Alex Ferguson tells you that you are there for a reason, to enjoy yourself and do yourself justice as you might not have another chance. You always think you will return, but the manager was right in my case. You have done your homework on the training pitch and you go into the same tunnel as your opponents.

Everyone fears Madrid, but I knew they feared us. Manchester United were the European champions, treble winners. That gave us confidence. I let them worry about us, about me and Yorkie [Dwight Yorke] up front, Beckham, Keane, Giggs and Scholes in midfield. None of us were overcome by nerves. You wouldn't make it to that level if you were.

And then it hits you as you walk up the steps and leave the tunnel into the open air. Wow! The perfect pitch surrounded by stands so high you struggle to see the sky.

All but 4,000 of the 80,000 crowd want you to lose. You can see your own travelling fans on the top tiers. A television image cannot come close to doing it justice.

Then you play.

We drew 0-0 in the Bernabeu in 2000, a good result, yet Madrid beat us at Old Trafford to progress. I also missed the best chance of the game to put us ahead in the Bernabeu, a header which I sent over the bar. I was disappointed but didn't dwell on it. You can't.

I waited for my next chance, but it never came. Still, 0-0 was a good and we did well.

We swapped shirts and I enjoyed the moment, but I did not fully appreciate it until I stopped playing and looked back.

Nil-nil would also be a good result when United play there in February. It is the standout tie of the last-16 in the Uefa Champions League and I will be in the Bernabeu to enjoy it as a fan, but I would be surprised if it is 0-0 given the number of goals both teams are scoring. And conceding.

United, Madrid and Barcelona are the three biggest clubs in the world. The game could be a final tie, but if you want to win the cup you have to beat the best. You might as well do that now. That applies to United and Madrid.

Madrid look unlikely to win their league and claiming a 10th European Cup will save their season. I honestly think Jose Mourinho will walk if he wins it. He may end up at Old Trafford.

Madrid have world class players throughout their side and a clever manager in Mourinho. His record against United is good and so is Madrid's - they have lost just twice in eight games and never at home.

The first leg is in Madrid and they play Barcelona before the second leg in Manchester. Mourinho will be damned if he picks his best team for the Barcelona match, and damned if he doesn't. The United game is likely to be far more important.

It is a 50-50 tie, too close to call and players from both teams should relish playing against each other at the Bernabeu and Old Trafford. It might never happen for them again.


Andrew Cole's column is written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten.


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