Does Alex Ferguson mind heading into a Champions League clash as the underdog? Probably not, but it does mean that he has the inferior team going into the round of 16 clash with Real Madrid, with the first leg taking place on February 13 at the Santiago Bernabeu.
So why are Real Madrid the favorites after all of their problems this season? They’re 16 points away from Barcelona, have shown quite a few weaknesses on their away matches in the league, not to mention in the group stage of the Champions League, losing at Dortmund and failing to win against Manchester City at the Etihad.
That’s before we mention the fact that Iker Casillas won’t be playing, and the whole social issue inside the dressing room, with Jose Mourinho no longer a very popular figure among his players. Manchester United, on the other hand, forgot what it is to lose points and are leading the Premier League table with 9 points between them and Manchester City.
The fact is that the Premier League doesn’t offer the same kind of challenge Real Madrid do. Long gone are the days when Liverpool thrashed Madrid 4-0 at home, and the EPL was hands down the best league in Europe. Manchester United are going to win a title despite not impressing many along the way because the overall level of the top teams in the league: Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea has been severely reduced over the last three years.
The La Liga isn’t the perfect case for parity, but Real Madrid have problem not necessarily derived from the quality of their opponents. It’s more of a matter of beating themselves. But there’s still the ability and quality of its squad; a manager who might be an egomaniac, but knows very well how to prepare his players for one, single focused battle, although Cristiano Ronaldo tries to remind everyone that this is not war.
For a few instances this season, with their backs pressed against the wall, Real Madrid have come up with their finest performances. They couldn’t afford to lose at the Camp Nou, and finished in a 2-2 draw. They came to Valencia to prove a point, blitzing the home side with a 5-0 lead at half time. They completely erased Atletico Madrid off the pitch in the 2-0 derby win, when all signs pointed towards a change in the city when it comes to the dominant team.
Manchester United, above all things, are a team of belief and confidence. Confident they can comeback from anything, and it’s never too late to score the winning goal. Alex Ferguson has lost faith in his winger based system, which brings the ball more to Shinji Kagawa and Wayne Rooney, but he’s also very reliant on Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley, who are probably inferior to Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira and even Luka Modric.
And then there’s general talent. Both teams have problems at the back, struggling to handle crosses and aggressiveness in it. Then it comes down to talent, and better finishers. Cristiano Ronaldo might be in a league where there’s a Lionel Messi to cast a shadow on everything he does, but with all due respect to Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, Ronaldo is by far the best player heading into the clash.