Manchester United, a team of dangerous resilience

Posted by Musa Okwonga

Here we are again: Manchester United against Real Madrid, in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League. It's a tie that comes at a strange time for both clubs. They have won this title twelve times between them, but it's been a few years since either of them sat on the mountain-top. Moreover, it's been a little longer since either one of them claimed this trophy in style. Both clubs used to swagger their ways through Europe, but Barcelona have checked them in their processions. This season, they have not been in the glorious form of old. This is therefore a year in which they are looking to shuffle, and not stride, into legend.

- The Real Madrid perspective
- The Manchester United perspective
- Rigg: Ronaldo the star but Ozil & Co can flourish against United

But that's the pressure when you've got a history as celebrated as that of Real Madrid and Manchester United: it's not just good enough to win. Your triumph must be some sort of timeless demonstration of the footballing arts. Madrid feel this obligation more keenly than United, even if it is somewhat self-imposed. Jose Mourinho will leave the Santiago Bernabeu mostly unloved because, even though he managed to take the league championship from perhaps the finest team the world has seen, he all too rarely made Madrid look beautiful.

Sir Alex Ferguson, who has a keener sense of tradition than his Portuguese peer, has often stayed true to his club's philosophy of attacking abandon, preferring to sacrifice mere progress in this competition to uphold United's attacking values. This approach abruptly stopped, of course, when he realised early this century that whilst his Light Brigade approach was good for epic poetry, it wasn't doing much for the trophy cabinet.

It's a luxury to play with joy. Madrid did this in 2003, in the opening leg of their tie against Manchester United; a game which they controlled so utterly that at one point the bookies might have offered lowish odds on a 6-0 victory. As it was, they emerged with a 3-1 win, a margin laughably small to anyone who witnessed it. That match, Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo seemed to be playing some form of hide-and-seek with the ball, with David Beckham looking a particularly forlorn victim.

These days, though, both teams' European tactics are largely built on an air of suspicion. Successive line-ups are primed for the hit-and-run of counter-attack. Chelsea's winning goal against Barcelona in the first leg of last year's semi-final, beginning with a cross-field pass from Frank Lampard, had seemingly been practised beyond the point of boredom on the training ground. Tonight's contest is set to be an opulent but uptight costume in which no-one dares to forget their lines.

The dominant narrative in this play apparently revolves around Cristiano Ronaldo. But there will doubtless be others in his supporting cast whom, full of professional pride at their omission from their headlines, will do their best to hog the stage when they have it. For Manchester United, the challenge is to make this season not merely one where they restore themselves to domestic glory, but where they match their European feats of old.

If they are to do so, then they briefly have momentum in their favour. Other than Tottenham Hotspur they have defeated each of their championship challengers this year, most notably away from home, and they have four strikers arguably as effective if not more as those who took them to the Treble in 1999. Sir Alex Ferguson's current crop do not have the fluidity of his late 20th-Century vintage, but so far they have shown every ounce of the same resilience. Stumbling, uncertain and determined, this makes them the most dangerous of propositions.

ESPN Conversations