Thursday, February 7, 2013

WIN (and then tie) OR GO HOME: 2012-2013 Champions League Preview Part I

Written by: Andy Chiang

Manchester United vs. Real Madrid

February 13, 2013
2:45pm Eastern
Leg 1: Estadio Santiago Bernabéu
Leg 2: Old Trafford

With the Knockout stages of the Champions League finally upon us, I and footy loving Americans everywhere are probably already planting the seeds for our impending Tuesday and Wednesday sickies. While one may opt for a more traditional “I woke up this morning and I don’t feel well” on a Tuesday, a more prudent fan may start quietly dropping hints of a cough or severe allergy/cold/flu/stomach virus throughout the week or so prior so that an innocuous Tuesday/Wednesday absence won’t seem out of the ordinary. Of course there is always the “morning traffic accident” that can buy you a half day, but that will really only work once, so you would have to choose. Regardless of which way you go, in my humble and biased opinion Manchester United vs. Real Madrid is by far the most intriguing matchup of the round followed closely by Porto vs. Malaga (two evenly matched and hungry sides with something to prove), and AC Milan vs. Barcelona (will Balotelli shine against a beatable Barca?).

The storylines between these two sides would be fit for a Peter Jackson trilogy. Mourinho vs. Ferguson, The Return of Ronaldo, Van Persie the Reincarnation of Cantona. The clash of the two biggest and richest clubs on the planet playing out in two of the footballing worlds’ most storied stadiums against a backdrop of hundreds’ of years of prestigious history between them. What more can a fan ask for? It’s a matchup like this one and the promise of those magical “European nights” that makes me ache for a mega millions jackpot win to be able to experience this tie in person. With the Superbowl only a few days past, it is also striking how different the feel of the Champions League is in comparison. In my eyes the Superbowl, even when taken as a weeklong football fest, pales when compared to a UCL final...but maybe that’s just because I live in Dallas? But I digress - the romantics of the Champions League aside, lets get into the key matchups of the tie.

Let me start by saying I will spare you all the historical matchup stats between United x Madrid or Fergie x Mourinho. I don’t know why European news outlets love to publish this information...but they are completely meaningless in giving us insight into next weeks’ match. Different time, different team, different players, different circumstances, etc. I don’t know why viewers would care about these stats. So...

Individuals and personalities steal headlines, but unit play is the key

Even by Champions League standards, the 2013 United x Madrid matchup features some of the biggest current personalities and names in the game. Sir Alex is enjoying a happy 2012-2013 season that has seen his much criticized United squad defy many of the critics and build a comfortable lead atop one of the most competitive leagues in the world. In between he has found time to abuse match officials, wine and dine with Pep Guardiola in NYC, and grace the halls of Harvard Business School. Just another year at the top for Fergie and United: more often than not finding ways to come back for the win, more often than not finding someone to step up.

At the other end of the spectrum is the roller-coaster-telenovela world of Real Madrid. Cristiano Ronaldo is sad, but he won’t say why and he still scores goals (why are there no good memes on this?!). Mourinho is a genius, then he benches Iker and is an egotistical maniac. Iker and Sergio demand his ouster says Madrid’s media friend Marca, but then the players refute this story and the club counter-attack their former friend like a mid-table La Liga opponent. All of a sudden Mourinho can’t control his dressing room, but they go on a 21 goal 8 game tear to open welcome 2013.

While individuals may be stealing the headlines leading up to this tie, the key battle of the game will most likely play out between how well each side’s midfield unit can play organized and play together. CR7 came out on Monday saying that he thought Real Madrid were better than United. Especially in the midfield, I would heartily agree. Tongue in cheek, EA sports and FIFA13 do too. Real Madrid’s midfield rating on the game is 4 points higher than United (as of 5 Feb 2013 - it was higher the week prior). Especially for United, organization and intelligence will be the key to control the middle third, stifle Madrid’s attack, and provide service to Van Persie, Chicharito, and Welbeck. 

This will definitely be an uphill battle for United. Of all the teams they could have drawn, Real Madrid’s style may be one of the toughest for United to cope with. We have struggled this season when playing against teams with Real Madrid’s uptempo, speedy, pressing style. Like the last few times United have crashed out of Europe, teams have learned that pressing Michael Carrick is an easy way to disrupt United’s rhythm. Carrick is having a banner year, and the team relies on him more than ever to do a Xavi and pull the strings. Also, the safety net here is thin. We no longer have Scholes to bail us out and Cleverley and Anderson have been wildly inconsistent. Kagawa has been playing well, but has not been able to impact a game like he did at Dortmund. He is poor in defense, but his quickness will be important in getting into passing lanes and disrupting the Madrid defense-to-midfield transition. On the brightside Rooney has been on fire the last few games playing out of the midfield. Rooney’s willingness to track back and defend as well as his touch and vision will make him invaluable in the coming battle, but he can’t do it alone. It will take a true team effort.

Meanwhile, Madrid are one of the few teams on the planet that can boast a counter attack faster than Manchester United. Facing 4-5 players with world-class breakaway speed (Ronaldo, Ozil, Di Maria, Modric, Callejon?), United’s midfield will have to move up and down the field together, swarm the passing lanes, and be careful with their positioning, knowing that even a slight misstep can leave a teammate exposed and result in De Gea picking the ball out of his net.

That’s all for this edition. Feel free to smite me in the comments. Stay tuned for part 2 coming tomorrow!

Photo and video content courtesy of


Great post! Love this matchup, but surprised no mention of RVP. He's the reason why United is sitting pretty atop the EPL, top 4 player in the world right now, just need to get him the ball. I think they draw at Bernabéu and United closes out at home. Real's form as of late as been lackluster and an injured Casillas could be the difference.

Also, the Arsenal vs. Bayern matchup should be very good. Wish Pep was already coaching, would love to see him go up against Wenger again like they did in 2011.

"Cristiano Ronaldo is sad, but he won’t say why and he still scores goals (why are there no good memes on this?!)"

love that.

i agree- the midfield will determine who wins this game. also united have to control madrid's wingers and i'm not so confident about that. i think a good strategy (i call it "contagion") would be for sir alex to let loose phil jones in an attempt to make as much possible physical contact with each one of madrid's players- boom, in a week they're all down with shingles and united rolls.

This is a pretty good analysis of the match-up. I think you're spot-on about the midfield. United's biggest problem this offseason was not getting Sneijder. I think they both regret it now. I would say there is no comparison whatsoever in midfield and that's what is most important in today's game. United doesn't have anyone that's near the calibre of Özil, Modric, Xabi Alonso...even Khedira.

Defensively, there's a slight edge to United because Vidic is back and Rio still partners well with him, even if he is ancient. Also, Casillas is out, but Diego López is quite good and the backline just got Pepe back along with the revelation of the (Madrid) season, Raphael Varane. If Madrid shift Ramos to his natural right back position, they will have a rock solid defense that might even be better than United's on the whole.

And offensively, it's all about CR7. That guy is on fire and is by far the best player in the planet right now. He's been playing better than Messi in 2013 and looks unstoppable. RVP is on a good streak and Rooney is doing very well, but I just think it's a bit too much for Man Utd, even with the return leg at Old Trafford.

RM 4 - MU 2
Leg 1: 3-1
Leg 2: 1-1

Ah come on....I agree with Pat on Ozil/Xabi Alonso/ Modric maybe...but Khedira? I would take Carrick over him. and you have to include Rooney in the MF debate because I am almost positive he will play there...and if he doesn't then he definitely should.

And someone tell me how good Callejon is bc I don't get to watch La Liga ever.

Will be covering GK and wrapping it up tmrw....

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