Michael Cox previews the mega clash between Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho's sides at Old Trafford.
"Neither coach wants to concede the first goal, neither is desperate for an early goal, and neither wants to allow the other space to break into"
Back a half-time 0-0 at 3.7511/4
Manchester United v Real Madrid, Tuesday 7:45, ITV 1.
"Madrid have found form just in time for this match," said Sir Alex Ferguson this week. "The nice thing is that both teams go into this game on a roll." It's nice for the neutral - but for United, it means Real are starting the second leg as 1.738/11 favourites to qualify.
Phil Jones' fitness has received significant attention in recent days, underlining the value of his marking job on Cristiano Ronaldo in the first leg, and his overall importance to Manchester United in recent big games. If fit, Ferguson will surely deploy Jones in a similar role - right-of-centre, stopping Ronaldo from getting too much space to cut inside and shoot. If he's unavailable, it's difficult to see who will replace him - and United will be at greater risk of conceding to their former attacker. If Jones doesn't start, I'll happily back Ronaldo to score at 2.47/5.
Ferguson can take something of a reactive approach to this game, for three reasons. First, there's the situation in the tie - playing for a 0-0 would be extremely difficult, but Real are the side that need to score, as a Manchester United clean sheet would see them safely through to the quarter-finals. United can start cautiously, then open out if needed.
Second, there's Real Madrid's style - they're a predominantly counter-attacking team that thrive when opponents attack them and leave space for Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil and Angel Di Maria to charge into. If United commit too many bodies into the opposition half, they'll be in danger of Real striking on the break.
Third, Jose Mourinho is unlikely to make any shock selections. Aside from the surprise return of Iker Casillas to Real's squad - which won't affect Real's strategy even if he starts - expect Alvaro Arbeloa, Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos, Fabio Coentrao at the back, Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira in the centre of midfield, then Ronaldo, Ozil and Di Maria supporting Gonzalo Higuain. The fact Mourinho rested his entire midfield and attack for Saturday's game against Barcelona suggests he'll use his trusted first XI, and Ferguson can give his players specific instructions for the anticipated threat.
With that in mind, it makes sense for Ferguson to stick as closely as possible to his starting XI at the Bernabeu, where he named an attack-minded side but gave them defensive tasks. Using Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck on the flanks was not for their attacking potential, but because they were deemed better options than Nani and Antonio Valencia for cautious wide roles, asked to track Real's full-backs before darting in behind on the break.
Therefore, this could be a tight, tense match. Neither coach wants to concede the first goal, neither is desperate for an early goal, and neither wants to allow the other space to break into. Backing a half-time 0-0 seems ludicrous given the presence of Ronaldo and Robin van Persie on the same pitch, not to mention the plethora of exciting attacking midfielders just behind. But 3.7511/4 isn't bad for this to be goalless at the break.
For United, attacking set-pieces will be crucial. They went ahead through Welbeck's header in Madrid, and Real have often conceded cheap goals from dead ball situations in their victories to relative minnows this season. However, the quality of Mourinho's side on the break is extraordinary, and they're particularly good when taking advantage of the opposition throwing men forward at corners. United must commit enough men forward to provide a threat, yet resist opening up the entire pitch for Real to break into.
In my view, the key players here are Mesut Ozil and Shinji Kagawa - assuming the Japanese playmaker starts. They're similar players, having made their name as number tens in technical Germany-based sides, and are excellent at leading their side's transition from defence to attack.
Ozil is the more established of the duo at Real, and is cleverer with his movement, opening up spaces for teammates and playing passes at clever angles. But Kagawa showed his quality with a weekend hattrick at Norwich, and Ferguson showed great faith in him by using him in a central role at the Bernabeu.
This is surely the type of game Kagawa was bought for, and if this turns into a clash of two exciting, creative central playmakers, we'll be in for a terrific spectacle - even if it isn't a goalfest.