Ronaldo the star but Ozil & Co can flourish against United

Posted by Nicholas Rigg

One would be forgiven for thinking the Champions League is further down the line than simply the first knockout stage. A good stage to be at, granted, but not yet the "business end," where you can sniff the trophy, and in Madrid's case, sniff a tenth European crown. Not quite yet.

- The Manchester United perspective
- The Real Madrid perspective

The build-up for Madrid's last-16 clash with Manchester United has been huge, almost akin to the final itself. Two of the biggest clubs in world football, two of the most successful managers in world football, and two of the best teams in world football. Has anyone mentioned that Cristiano Ronaldo's playing against his former club, too?

Both sides have been ramping up the tie. "The match the world is waiting for" was how Madrid boss Jose Mourinho billed it. It's the match Ronaldo has been waiting for too -- the first time he'll face the Premier League giants since his departure for the Bernabeu.

Behind closed doors it's probably not the match either side wanted at all, not at this stage of the competition. "You have to play the better teams at some point if you wish to be crowned European champions," I hear you cry. Maybe so, but I'd bet my last dollar the two clubs would have much preferred a simpler task to progress. An exit at this stage would be a big blow for either club -- and one of them is facing the chop.

It seems, from parts of the English media at least, that the tie will be decided on Cristiano Ronaldo's performance. How will the Portuguese play with the added romance of being against the club that made him, the club he still loves and the club where he won the Champions League and the Ballon d'Or? How will United mark him? Will they give him special treatment? If anyone's going to chalk up the tactics to stop Madrid's main man it should be Sir Alex Ferguson, shouldn't it? The man who took him to Old Trafford, the man who's acted as a father figure for Ronaldo, the man who nursed him to stardom.

It'd be extremely naive to downplay the Ronaldo's importance in the contest -- of course it would. But it'd certainly be dangerous to pinpoint Madrid's only way of seeing off United as through their talisman. Sir Alex certainly won't. That's why it will be so difficult for United to stop Madrid, especially in their own back yard. Leave Ronaldo to his own devices and get punished, or put an extra man on the Portuguese and allow Los Blancos' other dangermen some extra space. Mesut Ozil must be licking his lips.

In the Premier League, Ferguson has been known to man-mark dangerous opposition this season. Think Tottenham Hotspur's Gareth Bale and Everton's Marouane Fellaini. Phil Jones was the man to do the man-marking, offering extra protection to United's defence against their opposition's key man, and it was very much job done. One would expect a similar role for Jones at the Bernabeu -- especially at the Bernabeu.

Rafael may be having a good season at right back and may have the pace and strength to keep up with Cristiano for the most part, but there will be times when the Brazilian is at his limit. There will be times when Ronaldo switches to the right, and into the centre. He needs cover and Jones is seemingly best set to do that.

But while Ronaldo is being tracked left, right and centre by Jones, that must surely leave extra space elsewhere on the pitch for Madrid to exploit. United will need to be on their guard, and they will need to work like never before.

Robin van Persie is likely to be given some time off from defending to concentrate on being an outlet, but expect to see Wayne Rooney helping out at the back, and expect to see Antonio Valencia used, offering pace and better defensive capabilities than Nani. The use of midfielder Jones keeping within touching distance of Ronaldo should allow Madrid to open up gaps elsewhere, however.

Ozil's importance to Madrid is well-known in Spain and Germany and has certainly been touched upon in England, but his form at the moment is so that he could be Madrid's key man over the two legs. It's unlikely he'll get the same man-marking treatment as Ronaldo will get -- although he should be watched carefully, probably by Michael Carrick -- yet his movement and passing abilities can open up a defence in the same way a Ronaldo charge can.

Don't underestimate Angel Di Maria, either, should he get the nod to start. The Argentine has been the biggest disappointment in white for me this season, failing to build on a superb spell last season (which was marred by injury), but he is still a world-class player, with bags of pace and dribbling skills that can fool even the best defender. Patrice Evra, who should face Di Maria if both start, is not getting any younger. All three of Ronaldo, Ozil and Di Maria can switch across Madrid's attacking three, which will make life extremely tough for the Premier League leaders.

At the risk of going through the whole team, another player who may have gone very much under the radar is Sami Khedira. The German's holding qualities in a defensive midfield role are well known, but Khedira has added an attacking aspect to his game over the last few months, making him very much a box-to-box man, and another attacking threat United will have to look after, rather than be pleased to see holding back, as he may well have done a year ago. His midfield engine will also be of benefit for Xabi Alonso, who is understood to be less than 100 per cent going into the game.

Madrid's biggest worry should probably be from set pieces. It has been all season, even with Iker Casillas in goal. Defensive mistakes here, poor marking there. Plenty of teams, lesser sides than United, have taken advantage in La Liga this season, and United, who will provide plenty of balls into the box, will look to take advantage.

Rio Ferdinand is likely to partner Nemanja Vidic in the heart of the United defence, and those two will provide a big aerial threat from corners or free kicks. The recent introduction of Diego Lopez in goal for Mourinho's men means that Madrid's defence is still learning alongside the new shot-stopper.

In Dutchman van Persie, United have also got a player who doesn't need a host of opportunities to score, he needs just the one. Madrid will know that, and it'll be interesting to see whether Mourinho passes Pepe fit to play -- he gave a glimmer of hope the Portuguese defender could be involved thanks to a substitute appearance at the weekend -- or gives Raphael Varane a start. The Frenchman was superb in the big Clasico clash with Barcelona in the Copa del Rey recently, but he's still inexperienced and United may target that.

I've been asked what a good score would be for Madrid in this first leg, and in all honesty, a slender advantage -- ideally without conceding a goal -- would be great for Los Blancos. Madridistas would love to come out and see their side paste United 5-0 on home soil, but that isn't likely to happen. To return to Old Trafford with the lead, and without conceding, would fall nicely into Madrid's hands, tactically. Their lethal counterattacking has been well-documented, and that's exactly what they'd love to do back in Manchester, to kill the game off with an away goal.

Sergio Ramos and Alonso will have to be on their guard throughout, too. Both key players are walking the tightrope of being one yellow card away from missing the return leg. Both play in positions that are set to involve plenty of physical action, and I'm sure United will be well aware of the duo's predicament.

Pre-match previews and predictions aside, the beauty of this match is that anything really could happen. The starting line-ups are far from cut and dried. It's set up to be a magical cup tie in the making, and hopefully it'll live up to the expectations.

Follow Nicholas on Twitter @nicholasrigg

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