By Rob Cowsill
This article has been cobbled together for the purposes of analysing whether one entity can ever triumph over another similarly able entity during the course of 180 minutes of association football – Well the answer is insultingly obvious… maybe! (unless Tom Henning Ovrebo is refereeing).
The stage is set then for the sweeping and obvious analyses that barrage the football reader in the build up to any game of magnitude; the rationale being that you can’t go too far wrong pandering to the lowest common denominator (see any Saturday evening ITV television ever made (‘Splash’ the obvious exception given it’s meaningful script, excellent choreography, and Charlotte Jackson’s escaping bikini bottoms)).
The tie for which I am referring, will see Manchester United face winners of Spain’s La Liga, Real Madrid, in the Champions League first knock-round on Wed 13 February and Tuesday 5 March respectively. The impending matches will see these glamorous elements of our beautiful game (Messrs Chadwick & Modric aside) go head to head in a European tie for a 5th time; Real Madrid having been victorious in 3 out of the previous 4 encounters.
The first meeting between the sides dates back to a time pre-Giggs (hard to fathom I know); when in 1956/57 the treasured Busby Babes were beaten 5-3 on aggregate by a Madrid XI containing the legendary Di Stefano, amongst others (10 others is traditional). The subsequent tie of 1967/68 is Manchester United’s only competitive success over Los Blancos to date, but did catapult United to their 1st European Cup success; the 1st by any English club. Victory in the final at Wembley was the fulfilment of Sir Matt Busby’s long held dreams, and cemented him and his side as icons of the club; evidenced by the statues outside Old Trafford today. As a bi-product, bringing the European Cup back to slate-grey Manchester had the petit, yet smug inducing, benefit of totally overshadowing Manchester City’s Division 1 triumph… I’m not going to make any churlish remark about them being forever in United’s shadow… but I already have.
The remaining 2 meetings in Europe’s premier football tournament (apologies to Johnston’s Paint Trophy fans) are now just over a decade ago, 2000 and 2003, and as outlined, Real Madrid’s “Galacticos” prevailed on both occasions; 3-2 and 6-5 on aggregate respectively.
The second leg of the latest meeting, played at Old Trafford on 23 April 2003, has lingered somewhat with United fans ever since; 7 goals in the game, 2 from David Beckham in his last Champions League outing as a Red, and of course tubby/the original Ronaldo’s sensational hat-trick (see attached link (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yOms3wNvz8 )), all major contributories to what proved a memorable occasion.
But the above factors aren’t the only reason this result hangs over Old Trafford like Rick Waller’s gut hangs over ‘little Rick Waller’ – after all, there have been many classic Champions League nights at The Theatre of Dreams; just cast your mind back to clashes with Cluj, Otelul Galati, and Boavista. What sets the aforementioned night aside is that United were humbled by a Real Madrid side that oozed class and maturity; elements that were worryingly absent from their opponents on the night. The gulf in class was terrifying at times, and the effect of the defeat, in conjunction with the Champions League defeat of 1999/2000, was to leave many at Manchester United feeling inadequate (and not in a manner Pele might help with).
There was a period at the turn of the century, magnified by the glorious 1998/1999 campaign, when Manchester United’s various stakeholders began to believe their club was destined to dominate world football, and overtake Spain’s duo as the “biggest” entity in the game (bar Razor Ruddock). The second successive Champions League defeat to Real Madrid in 3 years brought this air of grandeur to an abrupt end however. In addition, it served to catapult the “Galacticos” to legendary status, and push United into a painful rebuilding process – world beaters David Bellion, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Tim Howard, and Kleberson all brought in the following summer, at the expense of the rather less obscure Juan Veron and full time model, part time footballer, David Beckham; the latter of the pair departing for the Spanish capital.
Before I get all misty eyed about the moment David Bellion ran nearly 20 yards before inexplicably tripping over the ball (FYI, running AND kicking at the same time is rather tricky); or reminisce about a man they named twice, not because of his heightened ability, but because he wasn’t listening the first time round; we have to remember a certain waif, acne infested, Portuguese teenager that also joined the ranks.
From humble and rather Clearasil dependant beginnings, Cristiano Ronaldo went onto become the focal point and driving force behind United’s ascent to the Champions League and Premiership double of 2008 (cue the insultingly obvious commentary). Ronaldo’s unrivalled power and numerous goals led him into United folklore, and more tangibly, guided him to a World Player of the Year title during his tenure.
Unfortunately though, like Beckham, Cristiano’s well sculpted torso, and incredible commercial clout, was also Real Madrid bound; despite Fergie announcing that he wouldn’t “sell them a virus”.
The subsequent years have had a whiff of deja vu about them, Real Madrid have again emerged as a European power, whilst United have entered a period of disruption – culminating in a 2011/2012 Europa League/Champions League humiliation and a trophy-less domestic campaign.
Removing the ever-present rose tinted specs: Manchester United are likely to be less fancied than Ann Widdecombe in a French maid’s ensemble, heading into the two legged affair against the 9 time European Cup Winners, [replace specs]but in many ways it is the perfect draw for them. There’s the obvious personal rivalry between the managers to capture the imagination and motivate those involved, but more importantly, the games have the potential to be the catalyst for United’s rejuvenation. Conversely, Real Madrid are perilously close to revolution given Mourinho’s uncertain future, poor domestic performances, and reports of in-fighting between senior squad members. Failure to produce in their quest for a 10th European title could well cause the house of cards to come crashing down.
The draw therefore offers United a true shot at redemption for the first time since the game at Old Trafford a decade ago. The opportunity for all associated with Manchester United to say proudly and honestly that their team can again compete with the Spanish giants, not just commercially, but also on the field of play. There’s additional motivation in the form of the Spaniards destabilisation, and the potential to send the Madrilenian’s into another tail spin; as well as the opportunity to impress the red’s former hero (I expect Ronaldo’s reception at Old Trafford will signal that he is in fact a current hero).
It’s crucial in my opinion that United’s playing staff approach the game with these positive goals implanted in their multi (mono)-cellular craniums. If thoughts of the one-way flow of players between the competing clubs (are United their feeder club? As Tottenham and Leeds are to United!), historic results, or the recent infatuation with tiki-taka football creep in, I fear we’ll again witness our beloved reds impersonating the cast of Watership Down moments before a garishly lit juggernaut ploughs them down – the San Siro 2007 and the Bernabeu 2003 prime examples of occasions when United have been overawed.
When the sides finally walk out on the expansive Bernabeu pitch on Wednesday, expect a frenetic start followed by long periods of Real Madrid possession. Provided United stay disciplined throughout (that’s aimed predominately at Rafael who will have Messrs Ronaldo & Di Maria to marshal) and soak up the inevitable pressure, I fancy Robin van Persie et al to exploit Madrid’s soft centre; as Grenada, Malaga, Celta Vigo, Real Betis, Espanyol… and presumably the ‘Perro y el Pato’ have all done in Spain this term. If I am right, Robin’s clinical finishing may guide United to a historic and remedial Champions League 1st knockout round victory. You never know, flushed with confidence, they could even use the triumph as a spring-board to another Wembley final… United fans will be hoping history can repeat itself!
Thanks for taking the time to read/scroll to the foot of my article. If you’ve tolerated it, you may even wish to browse my football blog at http://bobbycowsill.blogspot.co.uk/
SEA’s Real Madrid vs. Manchester United match day thread HERE.
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