Manchester United visit the Bernabeu tonight for the most highly anticipated match of the season so far. Their opponents, Real Madrid, may be languishing behind Barcelona in La Liga but will most certainly provide a mighty test.
This tie has been elevated to almost mythical status but it will be won in the details, and Sir Alex Ferguson’s tactical preparation and team selection may well be the key that unlocks the door to the next round for United.
David de Gea – A return to Spain for only the second time since his move to Manchester United awaits this young goalkeeper. And if he can pull off a display anywhere near as wonderful as his one against Athletic Bilbao last season, then he could be crucial for United on the night.
Rafael – The 22-year-old proved his quality with a man of the match performance against the Premier League’s most potent left-side on Sunday. Having often impressed in big games, Rafael faces a challenge on a whole new level on Wednesday evening. It will be up to him to disrupt Cristiano Ronaldo.
Rio Ferdinand – Ferdinand was not involved against Everton on Sunday, hinting at a start for the Englishman against Madrid.
Jonny Evans – The ever-improving Jonny Evans is likely to partner Ferdinand on Wednesday ahead of Nemanja Vidic. The main reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, Vidic is unlikely to play more than one game in a week. Secondly, the combined pace of Ferdinand and Evans is superior to that of Vidic against a quick Real Madrid attack.
Patrice Evra – The Frenchman is set to captain the side of Wednesday evening and will need to produce a top drawer performance to halt Madrid attacks and successfully support United forays forward.
Phil Jones – Jones has been included recently in midfield to stop threats from Gareth Bale and Marouane Fellaini. An inclusion against Real Madrid would almost certainly be in order to prevent a particular threat from the Spanish side.
Whether focusing on marking Cristiano Ronaldo, Mezut Ozil, or indeed someone else, Jones’ power and energy will be needed both to close the spaces for Madrid players and to add a dimension going forward that may prove productive on the counter-attack.
Michael Carrick – The pivot of United’s midfield was rested for most of United’s game on Sunday but is a certainty to return to the side on Wednesday. A high intensity performance with quick-thinking and effective passing will be essential if United are to disrupt Madrid’s rhythm.
Tom Cleverley – Cleverley has been a feature of United’s ‘big’ games this season and is set to start against Madrid. It may well be the case that Cleverley starts on the right hand side of midfield with the option to move into the centre should United get overrun in the middle of the park.
Wayne Rooney – Even Rooney’s place in the starting line-up can’t be guaranteed but it would be a surprise to see him omitted. A likely starting position for Rooney is behind the striker, with the option for him to move wide or drop back into midfield should United require more numbers in a particular area. He may well be tasked to sit on Xabi Alonso to stop the Spaniard dictating play in a similar way he did to Mikel Arteta earlier in the season.
Danny Welbeck – A start for Danny Welbeck would be a huge call from Sir Alex Ferguson but is by no means out of the question. The energy and pressing game from the youngster could prove vital as United look to contain Madrid. Welbeck’s excellent first touch and movement will also be a useful option to have when United look to keep the ball in tough positions.
Robin van Persie – Van Persie is odds on to lead the line for United on Wednesday. The Dutchman will be looking to find chinks in the Madrid armour and will surely expose any error. His excellent set-piece taking could also prove useful against an opposition who have suffered defensively in that department this season.
Manchester United may well line-up in a variation of a 4-4-1-1 formation that could become vary at any time due to it’s dynamic nature. Phil Jones is likely to sit in midfield, either man-marking particular Madrid players or simply acting as a defensive midfielder to protect the defence, particularly from Madrid counter-attacks.
Tom Cleverley may start right with the option to come into the middle at any point. There is some thought that Antonio Valencia will start on the right to help protect United’s left-side but Cleverley offers more in terms of mobility and was trusted in that position against Tottenham.
Wayne Rooney is likely to start behind the striker but could also move out wide and drop back into midfield. Danny Welbeck meanwhile is likely to start wide left and is likely to drift into a more central forward position should it be required.
The versatile options Ferguson possesses with his team could be a key factor in helping United to a good result at the Bernabeu. The two obvious caveats to the starting eleven above are the omission of Nemanja Vidic and Shinji Kagawa. Of course both could feature, particularly the versatile Kagawa and Ferguson may yet also spring another surprise on Wednesday evening in terms of team selection, as he so often does in the big games.
He has admitted to “trying to annoy him (Mourinho)” with his team selection and will make sure it will be something Mourinho, along with the rest of us, can only guess at.