Arguably the most eagerly awaited tie of the round sees Manchester United encounter the holders Real Madrid, with the winners guaranteed to be installed as favourites to win the competition.
Much of the pre-match build-up has focused on Sir Alex Ferguson’s suggestion that the draw was fixed to ensure Manchester United did not reach this year’s final. The Old Trafford boss has since withdrawn those remarks, but not before being handed a misconduct charge by UEFA. If this was a crude attempt to unnerve tonight’s opponents, it has almost certainly backfired, with Real Madrid coach Vicente del Bosque dismissing the remarks as ‘absolutely ridiculous.’
Del Bosque was happer to discuss matters on the pitch advising his team to beware of Manchester United’s attacking instincts when the sides meet tonight at the Bernabeu.
“Manchester United are capable of hurting you at any moment,” Del Bosque warned.
“They have a well defined style and they’re going to play the way they know how.”
Three years ago, the sides met at the same stage of the competition with United being in Madrid’s position as holders and favourites to retain their crown. However, despite holding the Spanish side to a 0-0 draw in the away leg, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were outplayed in the return leg, going down 3-2 to a vibrant attacking display by Madrid.
Aware that his side were vulnerable after failing to score in the away leg, Ferguson has stressed the importance of scoring an away goal.
“Nil-nil is a dangerous result. We have to try to score an away goal and we have to remember that we are good players ourselves,” said Ferguson.
Madrid, boosted by the return from injury of captain Fernando Hierro and with Roberto Carlos cleared to play following his sending-off against Portugal last week, have a full-strength squad to choose from.
The home side virtually picks itself these days and with the illustrious quintet of Zinedine Zidane, Raul, Luis Figo, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, all running into form, Ferguson is happy to adaopt the role of underdog. However, while Ferguson respects his opponents, he is not in awe of them.
“We’ve played against Figo, Zidane, Ronaldo and Raul before,’ he said. ‘And I don’t think they have got anyone who should catch our breath.”
Respect is mutual with Madrid striker Raul highlighting Ryan Giggs as United’s main danger.
“I like all the Manchester team, but if I had to choose one it would be Ryan Giggs,” Raul said.
“He can open up the game with his speed and he’s very direct.
“Both sides can win away from home, so though we’ll both be looking to win, the tie will be settled in the second leg.”
United, meanwhile, are without the injured Juan Sebastian Veron and the suspended Phil Neville, but confidence is high following last weekend’s 4-0 demolition of Liverpool.
Having won their group with ease, United have reason to be confident. They conceded just five goals in six second group stage matches and in Ruud van Nistelrooy, they possess the Champions League’s leading scorer this season.
The Dutch striker confirms that confidence at the club is high.
“When you see the month we have (ahead), to start off with a 4-0 win against Liverpool, means we’ll travel to Madrid with confidence,” he told the club’s official website.
“We will respect all the Madrid players. We will see one of the best matches in Europe. This match can be considered even bigger than a World Cup quarter-final, we are talking about a group of players who are among the best in the world.”
Given their array of attacking talent it is difficult to see beyond a Real Madrid victory over the course of two legs. However, Manchester United have reserved their best performances for the Champions League thisseason and it would be foolish to discount their chances. In all likelihood, this match will be settled in the return leg at Old Trafford.
Real Madrid: Casillas; Salgado, Hierro, Helguera, Roberto Carlos; Figo, Makelele, Conceicao, Zidane, Raul, Ronaldo
Manchester United: Barthez, Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Silvestre, Beckham, Keane, Giggs, Scholes, Butt, Van Nistelrooy
Referee: Anders Frisk (Sweden).