x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Champions League: Spain braced for a clash of the giants as Real Madrid get ready to host Manchester United

Manchester United defender Phil Jones likely to be tasked with ominous assignment of stifling Cristiano Ronaldo in the first-leg, last-16 encounter, writes Andy Mitten from Madrid.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 12: Phil Jones of Manchester United passes the ball as Sir Alex Ferguson looks on in the background during a training session at the Carrington Training Ground on February 12, 2013 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** 161587947.jpg
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 12: Phil Jones of Manchester United passes the ball as Sir Alex Ferguson looks on in the background during a training session at the Carrington Training Ground on February 12, 2013 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** 161587947.jpg

MADRID // Jose Mourinho describes it as "the game the whole world wants to see". Real Madrid against Manchester United has always been so, but these two of the three biggest clubs in world football have only met four times in competition. That is not to say they have not enjoyed close relations.

In October 1959, a leader of men arrived at Weaste Cemetery in Salford. The Real Madrid chairman, Santiago Bernabeu, came with a wreath, which he laid on the grave of Eddie Colman, a local boy nicknamed "Snake Hips" because, in the words of a teammate, he gave defenders twisted blood.

Bernabeu came to Salford because Roger Byrne, the only other local footballer who died at Munich, was cremated, while the other players were not Mancunians.

Bernabeu did not go alone. He took with him players from the finest club football team the world has known. Players such as Alfredo di Stefano, Paco Gento, Ferenc Puskas and Santamaria who were on a run of five successive European Cup wins.

Madrid were kindly to United after Munich and played a series of friendlies. Following the cemetery visit, they beat United 6-1 at Old Trafford. They were so good that the 63,500 crowd applauded them off the pitch.

Madrid's Ronaldo, the Brazilian, was applauded off the pitch after a hat-trick 44 years later. The gaps are considerable, but while the giants have much in common and have traded players from David Beckham to Ruud van Nistelrooy, they seldom meet on the pitch.

A different Ronaldo, Cristiano, is the best player from today's squads. United fans still sing his name, even though he left nearly four years ago: "Running down the wing, hear United sing, Viva Ronaldo!" It was the terrace anthem which soundtracked United's run to victory in the 2008 Champions League final.

Many of their 5,000 travelling fans are singing it in Madrid right now, on the bustling Gran Via. They will not sing with such gusto tonight, for their loyalty lies with their team rather than a former player.

United's season has been less turbulent than Madrid's, but the home side are still unbeaten at the Bernabeu in 33 games, stretching back over a year, and favourites.

They have better individuals than the side who lead England's top flight by 12 points. United have the advantage of the second leg at Old Trafford, but is it an advantage? They played the second leg in Manchester in each of the last two meetings in 2000 and 2003 and went out in both ties.

Bar their injured captain Iker Casillas, Mourinho's side are at full strength as they go in search of the decima - a 10th European Cup. They will probably play their usual 4-2-3-1 line-up: Diego Lopez; Alvaro Arbeloa, Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Fabio Coentrao; Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira; Angel Di Maria, Mesut Ozil, Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.

Madrid are not like the Barcelona side who outclassed United in two Champions League finals. Attack them and you run the risk of being destroyed, counter-attack and you have a better chance.

As far back as pre-season in Los Angeles, Mourinho planned for his team to hit their peak in February. "We'll arrive [in February] with motors" was the phrase heard frequently at their Valdebebas training ground. Ronaldo is the greatest testament to that statement, he is simply magnificent at present, Madrid's best player by far.

United are almost at full strength too and doubts over Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Ashley Young were dispelled as they trained yesterday before the team flew to Spain. Jones has been earmarked to mark Ronaldo, but the line-up, tactics and formation are less predictable.

Sir Alex Ferguson's brother Martin has watched Madrid live six times, while United's manager watched their games on television. United will be prepared as the world awaits.

 

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