After a more than healthy dose of hype the 1st epic leg of United v Real has passed us by. With the tie still very much in the balance at 1-1 the speculation, predictions and, yes, the hype, can begin all over again. Even though the 2nd leg is still nearly three weeks away let us start it here by asking ‘What do United have to do to progress past Madrid?’
It may be a little too simplistic to say ‘more of the same’. But it is clear to see that there were a lot of positives to be taken from United’s draw at the Bernabeu. First and foremost, Phil Jones. Young England international Jones played a key role in the 1st leg, although a look at United’s recent performances would suggest that his importance shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Jones was deployed in the central midfield holding role when United went away to Spurs less than a month ago. Even though Spurs arguably had the better of the proceedings in this 1-1 draw, one player who didn’t make his usual impact was Gareth Bale. With Jones on the right hand side of the centre of midfield to aid the right winger and the full back, Spurs had little joy attacking down the left against United, despite sporting one of the most in-form wingers in the world.
Jones played the same role as United battled to a 2-0 win over a tough Everton side on Saturday. Presumably played there with the intention of keeping Everton’s dynamic duo of Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar under wraps. It worked. United ground out a result against a formidable Everton team who’s four goals at Old Trafford last season helped unravel United’s title challenge.
On to this week and Jones & Co came up against Cristiano Ronaldo. Again, it worked. Ronaldo wasn’t completely subdued, how could he be? But he didn’t dominate the game with his usual gusto. Indeed his goal only came when he drifted away from his usual left wing position and came up against Patrice Evra instead.
While not offering much going forward, the solid midfield pairing of Jones and Michael Carrick was enough to keep Madrid at a distance for much of the game. The same will need to be done at Old Trafford in the return leg. United’s advantage comes in the slenderest of forms, a solitary away goal. This is an advantage that United cannot afford to simply throw away. Even at home, United will struggle to outscore Madrid so keeping them at bay may be vital.
It’s been suggested that due to the numerous injuries that United captain Nemanja Vidić has had to overcome, that he is no longer capable of playing two games in quick succession. Therefore his involvement against Everton on Sunday effectively ruled him out of the Madrid game this week. Despite an impressive display by Rio Ferdinand and Johnny Evans in Madrid, look for Sir Alex to give Vidić every chance of playing in the return leg. That may mean leaving him out of the Norwich game that United play days before.
Vidić is still a commanding figure and an influential character and it’s hard to imagine United being better without him than with him. Even though they have not had their most impressive of seasons, Madrid still keep the ball well and attack impressively. United could have to withstand heavy pressure (at least in spells) and the Serbian is the kind of defender you want in the trenches with you when trying to withstand this kind of onslaught.
Despite all of this, Sir Alex isn’t the kind of manager to just set up shop and play for a draw. Probably because this kind of negativity doesn’t very often bear fruit. A goal could be needed and as rare as it is that you say this, United need more from Robin van Persie than they got in Madrid.
In the biggest of games, like this Champions League clash is, chances can be few and far between. Robin van Persie was gifted with a few half chances and one glorious opportunity in the 1st leg but failed to convert any of them. If he’d have been his usual clinical self, United could have been carrying a 2-1 lead into the home leg.
But overall United can be buoyed by their 1st leg showing. Not only are they still in the game after their trip to Madrid but they hold a slight advantage and on the slightest of margins (such as an away goal) can games like this be won. Robin van Persie will need to be better, Wayne Rooney will need to see more of the ball, Rafael and David De Gea will need to eliminate the individual errors which have happened on occasion during the season.
The most exciting thing about this tie is that if United manage to do all of the above there are still no guarantees that they will go through. That’s how good Madrid can be on their day. For the neutrals, it’s still in the balance. And that’s all we could have hoped for. So then, let the hype commence...