Champions League: Manchester United v Real Madrid preview - "Tonight will be special"
The second-leg last-16 clash between the two European giants is one to savour, says Ed Bearryman
Forget the diving, the feigned injuries, the imaginary cards waved at beleaguered officials.
Forget failed takeovers and ruinous management.
Forget administration and agent fees and financial doping.
Forget the eye-gouging, the ref-hounding, the tribal myopia.
Forget the corruption, the largesse, the detachment from reality.
Forget it all. Tonight is a night for football. Just football. Please drop off your pessimism at the front gate, leave your suspicion on the doorstep.
Tonight, as Jose Mourinho observed in his press conference at Old Trafford yesterday, the world stands still for the denoument to a Champions League last-16 tie rich in romance and pedigree.
Manchester United and Real Madrid share 51 league titles and 12 Champions League trophies between them, but the gravitas of this fixture is about much more than the acquisition of mere silverware.
Both clubs have an identity, a legend, which can light up the whole of Europe with a charge of delicious electricity.
They both play the game according to those romantic ideals of daring to entertain.
And, tonight, there is a sense that we are guaranteed entertainment and the highest of drama.
We've been here before, of course. In 2003 when United were insouciantly swept aside by three strikes of another Ronaldo's boot, in front of a disbelieving and appreciative Old Trafford crowd.
And before that in 2000, when Fernando Redondo and all-time Champions League leading scorer Raul authored another devastating ambush on their travels.
There were flickers of brilliance in red across those two ties, too. David Beckham’s dash-and-swerve run and finish in 2003, for instance, stands out as one of the few occasions he ever managed, or needed, to beat a man to score.
But tonight the pair meet again on a more equal footing. United are unbeaten in 18 matches, Real have one defeat in 17. United lead the championship by 12 points, while Real are fresh from inflicting a double-blow – in cup and league, respectively – against their sworn enemies, and trademarked Best Team in The World, Barcelona. And after United's visit to the Bernabeu, the tie stands at 1-1.
Confidence is high, as are the stakes for both managers.
For Mourinho, defeat means it won’t be him who carries Madrid to their spiritual destiny of 10 European Cup wins.
For Ferguson, the same outcome represents another missed opportunity in Europe, especially with their great nemesis of recent years Barcelona – Real have no monopoly there – hanging by a thread in this same competition.
To win, United must combine their newfound parsimony with the cavalier and irresistible flair of their 1999 vintage.
The smash-and-grab final of that year is well remembered, but there were two exhilarating score draws with Barcelona in the group stages, as well as two gutsy victories over fearsome Inter Milan and Juventus teams in the knockouts.
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One moment in particular stands out from that run. Going into time added on in the first leg of the semi-final against Juventus at Old Trafford, United trailed 1-0 to an Antonio Conte goal.
Ferguson’s men, in a manner which was to be repeated again and again in that campaign, summoned enough energy to storm forward one more time, and were rewarded when Ryan Giggs swept home a crucial equaliser at the far post with 92 minutes on the clock.
Giggs will make his 1,000th appearance for United in some form tonight – an achievement that beggars belief – and he will know more than most the precariousness of United’s position in this tie.
His late show at home to Juventus 14 years ago paved the way for a momentous 3-2 victory in Turin, which sent United to the final.
In a match in which both managers have promised there will be goals, who would bet against a 3-2 away win sending Real into the quarter-finals at United’s expense?
Whatever happens there is an expectation that tonight will be special. The heritage and style of the two clubs makes that as cast-iron a guarantee as you can get in football.
So for one night only it’s time for football, and us, to forget all our troubles and just get happy. We’re in for a hell of a treat.
Ed Bearryman is features editor at Match of the Day magazine
Manchester United face Real Madrid at Old Trafford tonight with the score from the first leg of their last-16 tie standing at 1-1. Kick-off is at 7:45pm with coverage on ITV1 from 7:30pm