Okay, so what’s the deal here?
Well, Atlético Madrid and the club’s illustrious neighbour, Real, have been hit with transfer bans that span two windows. Read More
It could hardly be bigger. Two out of the top three leading clubs in the world set for a grand European battle on what could be another famous Old Trafford night. Three weeks may have passed since these old clubs last met, but none of the focus or intensity surrounding the tie has drifted away. As Real Madrid coach José Mourinho put it on Monday, “the world will stop to watch”.
Indeed, not only are both Manchester United and the visitors sporting some of the game’s finest, but each is in good form too. United, having not lost in any competition since 5 December, now sport a 12-point lead in the Premier League, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s side chasing silverware on three fronts. Meanwhile, Mourinho’s outfit arrives having beaten Barcelona twice in the space of eight days, home and away.
Each side has enough weaponry to seize victory on the night, although United has the edge having scored at the Bernabéu in the opening tie of this Round of 16 clash. But it is, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo, on whom most eyes will gaze – the 28-year-old forward returns to Old Trafford as a player for the first time since departing in summer 2009. A long-lost love.
The match also promises to be a fascinating tactical battle, with each one of Europe’s finest counter-attacking sides and both undeniably frail at the back over the course of the season. While United has secured four clean sheets in a row during Premier League matches, Real’s propensity to score on the break has remained the focus for Sir Alex’ side over the past week.
It leads to the very real possibility that United may concede territory and possession on the night, hoping to neutralise Real’s threat on the counter and benefit from broken play, just as Ferguson’s side did at the Bernabéu last time out.
“As we know, they are one of the best counter-attacking teams in Europe and that showed last Tuesday in the Nou Camp,” said Ferguson of Real, who beat Barcelona 3-1 in the Copa Del Rey semi-final at Camp Nou.
“They were stunning on the counter-attack. We have to find a way of coping with that but also having our own threat. There will be goals and I think both teams will score. We have to think we will score more,” he said. “Both teams are in form. As a European night I don’t think you get any bigger than this one – great clubs with great histories. It is set up to be a potentially marvellous game and I don’t think it will be a disappointment either.”
Ferguson is likely to be without defender Phil Jones, who was asked to man-mark the space between defence and attack in the opening leg. Jones’ ability to limit, although not eliminate, Ronaldo’s attacking threat, along with creative fulcrum Mesut Özil, played a significant role in United’s 1-1 draw.
And the 20-year-old’s ankle injury means that Sir Alex is more likely to deploy a traditional formation at Old Trafford. Ferguson deployed two strikers in wide positions and Jones in a holding role three weeks ago. It leaves United vulnerable to Ronaldo’s considerable threat.
“My biggest concern is if he turns up,” said Sir Alex. “What do you expect if you play against him? You expect problems during the night and you try to prepare for it as best you can. It won’t be easy because he does it every week. The experience young Rafa had in Madrid will hold him in good stead because he will be doing the same again. I don’t think it is one we should fear. If we go out fearing the damage Cristiano can do us then we will forget what we can do.”
Jones aside Ferguson has few injury concerns ahead of Tuesday’s fixture. The 71-year-old will choose two from Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidić and Jonny Evans in central defence, while three midfield slots remain open. Hat-trick hero Shinji Kagawa could be sacrificed if Ferguson opts for a more defensive-minded option, although the Japanese performed well tucking in from the left at the weekend.
Ryan Giggs will make his 1,000th senior appearance for club and country, although it is likely to be from the bench.
Meanwhile, Real arrive in Manchester with confidence high after twice beating rivals Barcelona in the past week, scoring five against the run-away La Liga leaders in the process. But Mourinho, who is likely to leave Real for the Premier League in the summer, insists that facing United at Old Trafford is just another game. One that the planet will be glued to.
“The world will stop to watch this tie,” said the Portuguese coach.
“I doubt expectations can be bigger than for this one. Nobody knows what will happen because the teams are well matched. United are on a fantastic run. They have reached the FA Cup quarter-final and they are winning the Premier League already in March. They don’t lose a match in months but we are also in good form in 2013.”
It is a fact that few at Old Trafford will have missed. United, holding an away goal, may be marginal favourites, but only just. After all, the last time Real visited Old Trafford, Ferguson’s side was strong favourites to progress. Ronaldo, the Brazilian variety, scored three to take Real through.
Most attending on Tuesday night will hope the 2013 namesake fails to repeat the trick.
Manchester United v Real Madrid – Champions League, Old Trafford – 7.45pm, 5 March 2013.
United (4-2-3-1): de Gea, Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Kagawa; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Vidić, Büttner, Nani, Powell, Anderson, Giggs, Young, Welbeck, Hernández
Real (4-3-3): Lopex; Arbeloa, Pepe, Ramos, Coentrao; Alonso, Khederia; Di Maria, Özil, Ronaldo; Benezema. Subs from: Casillas, Varane, Albiol, Carvalho, Marcelo, Nacho, Essien, Kaka, Modric, Callejon, Higuain.
Match officials (all TUR)
Referee: Cüneyt Çakır
Assistant referees: Bahattin Duran, Tarik Ongun
Additional assistant referees: Hüseyin Göçek, Mete Kalkavan
Head to Head
Last 10: United 2, Real 3, Draw 4
Overall: United 2, Real 3, Draw 4
* United to win on penalties
For all the attention grabbed by Manchester City in recent seasons there is still something compellingly attractive attached to a crunch European night against one of the continent’s giants – the clichéd European atmosphere under the lights and a departure from the hustled norm of the Premier league that has enduring appeal.
Not only does European football remain an irresistible product, but also genuine test of Manchester United’s place in world football – a team that few predicted could challenge on all fronts this season, but one that is outperforming all at home and abroad.
Indeed, Manchester United’s trip to Santiago Bernabéu to face Real Madrid on Wednesday night is, as Sir Alex Ferguson described it on Tuesday, the “acid test” of his team’s status. A test not only of United’s ability to compete against Europe’s best, but the Reds’ mental strength in what is likely to be a hugely pressurised atmosphere.
And while neither side is European Champion, and Madrid likely to acquiesce domestic hegemony this season, the are few who will reject the idea that United’s fixture with Madrid is not only the competition’s premier tie to date, but a clash between the world’s two most recognisable football clubs.
Yet, for all the perceived glamour United play in Madrid for the first time in almost a decade, with memories of a chastening 3-1 defeat at the Bernabéu in 2003 still fresh. Ferguson’s side triumphed in the return, only for Brazilian striker Ronaldo’s hat-trick at Old Trafford to prove decisive for Los Merengues.
Four years earlier and Real, sporting a teenage Ilker Cassilas and 22-year-old striker Raul, knocked the European champions out of the competition with a 3-2 victory at Old Trafford. On both occasions United had approached the opening leg in Madrid tentatively; on neither did Ferguson’s side progress, despite being widely regarded as favourites.
Once again United will start the double-header with Madrid in good form, although few pundits will assume Ferguson’s side is a banker for the tie despite Real’s damaging dressing-room politics. Once again one of Spain’s giants is inserted between Ferguson’s outfit and continental glory – and it hasn’t turned out well for the Scot in recent times.
Still, Ferguson remains defiant ahead of the match, with 71-year-old insistent this year’s United vintage is as good as any of his previous.
“Our team is capable of winning the Champions League,” said Sir Alex in Madrid on Tuesday.
“There is a great spirit about the players. People keep saying we’re not as good as past United teams but sometimes we get foggy impressions about the past and I do so myself at times. The reality is this team doesn’t know when it’s beaten which is a great quality. The acid test is tomorrow and we have to get through it if we are to win this trophy.”
Mourinho’s outfit begins the tie in decent form after hammering Sevilla 4-1 in Madrid last weekend. Cristiano Ronaldo’s 20th hat-trick during four productive years in Spain secured victory as the Spanish Champions cruised home more than 24 hours ahead of United’s weekend victory over Everton.
Fine form perhaps, and an additional rest for sure, yet dressing-room politics and a 16 point La Liga gap to Barcelona mean that this is likely to be the last campaign in which Mourinho commands the Spaniards. By contrast, Ferguson’s outfit travels not only in good form, having dispatched Everton last weekend, but amid a run of 14 matches without defeat since CFR Cluj emerged victorious from a dead-rubber group match last December.
“I think it’s a good time for us to be playing Real Madrid,” said Sir Alex.
“We have a fantastic lead in our league and we have everyone fit. When you come to this part of the season you [usually] have two or three players injured. We don’t have that, which is a bonus. We’re ready for tomorrow. Since the Champions League started, almost every year we have played one of the biggest clubs in the world.
“When I started as a coach many years ago, I dreamt I’d be playing against the top teams as a manager and you get the opportunity to do that in the Champions League on a regular basis. There is a special significance when you play the big teams and you’ll see that tomorrow. It’s just a shame we and Real are meeting this early. I wish it had been at Wembley, in the final.”
Jones may be asked to mark Ronaldo, while Rooney will make up a five-man midfield. Elsewhere, Ferguson will choose between Rio Ferdinand and captain Nemanja Vidić in defence, while Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley should start in central midfield. Paul Scholes is the only absent through injury and did not travel.
Formations aside, Ferguson may ask his players to take a less expansive approach than has become the norm this season, with the Reds seeking to hit Real on the break while soaking up Spanish pressure.
It is, after all, Real’s ability to counter-attack at pace that will be Ferguson’s principle concern. Madrid’s rapid transition from defence to attack, using Ronaldo’s pace and tendency to create space from broken play, remains the over-riding threat to the Reds’ progression.
“It won’t be 0-0 tomorrow night, I can assure you of that,” promised Ferguson, despite the likelihood of United deploying a conservative approach.
“This match can live up to expectations. History always plays a part in this type of game, as does the two teams’ desire to go forward. Real Madrid are one of the best counter-attacking teams in Europe. Their speed from box to box is fantastic. But we have to play our own game too. Our intention is to win and to score.”
Meanwhile, Mourninho remains under pressure to deliver a 10th European Cup to the Spanish capital. The imminent loss of last season’s hegemony to a resurgent Barcelona ensures that Real’s focus is squarely on Europe where Los Merengues boast a record of eight victories from the past nine home matches.
“It won’t be a disaster if we don’t win the Champions League,” said the former Chelsea coach.
“There are some great teams and coaches who never won it. Real Madrid want to win their tenth title and I want to win my third. I don’t want to finish my career with two.”
It is a sentiment with which Ferguson can agree. One will certainly be disappointed over the next three weeks of football.
Real Madrid v Manchester United – Champions League, Santiago Bernabéu – 7.45pm, 13 February 2013
Real (4-2-1-3): Lopez; Arbeloa, Pepe, Ramos, Coentrão; Alonso, Khedeira; Ozil; Di Maria, Benzema, Ronaldo; Subs from: Adán, Fernández, Varane, Rodríguez, Essien, Modrić, Callejón, Kaká, Morata, Higuaín.
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Jones, Cleverley, Carrick, Rooney; van persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Vidić, Büttner, Anderson, Nani, Kagawa, Young , van Persie, Hernández, Giggs, Welbeck.
Match officials (GER)
Referee: Felix Brych
Assistant referees: Mark Borsch, Stefan Lupp
Additional assistant referees: Marco Fritz, Tobias Welz
Fourth official: Thorsten Schiffner
Real Madrid: WDWDLW
Head to Head
Last 10: Real 3, United 2, Draw 3
Overall: Real 3, United 2, Draw 3
“It’s ridiculous to think,” said Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson ahead of United’s 2-0 victory over the Toffees on Sunday. “That we play on the Sunday and Real Madrid play on the Saturday with that extra day’s rest.”
Thus grew a thousand headlines – and whether Ferguson’s “anger” at the Premier League’s Faustian pact with Sky television is genuine or merely another tabloid circus, there is little doubt United’s manager has a point. While Real rolled over mid-table Sevilla far shy of breaking sweat on Saturday, Ferguson’s side faced a relentlessly physical encounter with with David Moyes ever-rugged Everton at Old Trafford 24 hours later.
It is not the first occasion on which Ferguson’s has openly criticised match scheduling ahead of a key European tie – and unlikely the last. After all, matches have long been scheduled not when they are most appropriate for supporters, nor indeed managers, but peak viewing times.
In the age of multi-billion pound contracts this devil has strong pull.
“We are not giving our teams a chance to be successful in Europe, but there’s nothing you can do about it,” continued Sir Alex.
“It’s nothing to do with the FA, it’s the Premier League. They agreed a contract with TV and they’re in control. You can’t reject it. What can you do? Not turn up? I’d love to do that!
“I’ve complained about and it and you’ve heard my complaints. Do you think they listen? Other countries do make sacrifices for their top teams in Europe.”
In lieu of the extra rest United fly out to Madrid on Tuesday with Ferguson having taken the bold move to deploy a strong side against Everton on Sunday. While many expected the Scot to risk a weaker side against Moyes’ outfit, Sir Alex takes significant credit in changing his mind after Manchester City’s collapse at Southampton on Saturday evening.
Ferguson’s infallible logic, shared by many supporters, was that victory over Everton would be a significant step towards English title number 20.
His players responded in kind, with right-back Rafael da Silva superb in shackling Steven Pienaar, and Phil Jones inseparable from United’s erstwhile tormentor Marouane Fellaini. Up front Wayne Rooney roamed with delicious menace, and Robin van Persie pulled Everton’s defence apart with his now customary movement.
There was none of the nervousness of last April, when United lost two goals against Everton in the final seven minutes to blow victory, and with it the league title.
Instead, the reward for Ferguson’s audacity is a healthy lead in the Premier League and an opportunity to rest players later in the season should United remain in contention on three fronts.
“I was going to make about seven changes but when I got the result, I felt this was a more important game for us because it could give us a comfortable lead,” Ferguson told Sky Sports.
“We can make changes later on in the season. It is realistic; we knew that if we got a good result today then we’d be in a positive position. We have got to win our games anyway, so it didn’t matter what happened to City on Saturday. That’s the way we should look at it and I’ve been saying that for week. If we concentrate on our own game then we’ll be okay.”
Meanwhile, Madrid hammered Sevilla 4-1 at the Bernabéu on Saturday, with former Red Cristiano Ronaldo claiming yet another Real hat-trick – his 36th, 37th, and 38th goals of storming campaign.
Ronaldo’s second, a long-range left-footed drive after a dribble that took out three Sevilla defenders, will remind United’s supporters, if any is required, of just how much damage the Portuguese forward can inflict. Ferguson may well deploy Jones to nullify Ronaldo’s threat; in this mood there is little anybody can do.
In keeping with Ferguson, Real manager José Mourinho picked a strong side to face Unai Emery’s struggling outfit. Ronaldo started the fixture alongside Gonzalo Higuian, Karim Benzema and Káká in a multi-talented attacking unit.
Not that Mourinho has a league title to concern him, with Real now 16 points behind Barcelona in La Liga. Defeat to Granada last weekend, in which Ronaldo scored the first own goal of his career, sealed Madrid’s fate if any doubt remained in an increasingly one-sided Spanish title race.
Indeed, it is Europe that offers the Portuguese coach his best chance of salvation this season, with Real facing Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey semi-final second leg later this month having drawn the opening game 1-1 at Bernabéu.
Little wonder Mournho is relishing the United tie, with the 50-year-old seeking to eclipse his old friend Ferguson in claiming a third Champions League crown.
“It is the match the world is waiting for,” Mourinho told MUTV with the coach’s customary flamboyance.
“People think we are under pressure because a big team will be out. But it is the kind of match we want and the people are not waiting for any other game. I hope we give them what they want.”
The two managers met at Old Trafford after the Reds completed victory over Everton, with Mourinho in Manchester to scout United ahead of next week’s Champions League tie.
“I feel privileged about [the meeting] because he is such an important person in the world of football and, more importantly, he is good person.
“I have always had a fantastic relationship with him and I am proud of it. We have had so many matches between us which started with Porto. We had some with Chelsea, Inter and now Real. Of course, I want to win and he wants to win, but I believe the loser will have a little bit of space to feel a little bit happy because of the friendship.”
The advantage lies with Real, of course, and not just because of the extra rest. Los Merengues haven’t lost at home in more than 30 matches. It is a statistic that places United’s task in context, 24 hours additional rest or otherwise.
Ferguson may regret deploying so many of his stars against Everton if a jaded team suffers defeat at Bernabéu, but with the title now within reach few supporters will concur.
“When you shake hands with the devil you have to pay the price,” Ferguson once said of English football’s deal with Sky.
But it is the hell of City’s title triumph that fans, and Ferguson it seems, recalled with sharp focus on Sunday.
With thoughts turning towards another Champions League semi-final – should the Reds beat Bayern Munich at Old Trafford tonight – this wonderful British Pathé footage from the ‘Busy Babes’ 1957 tie against Real Madrid should put you in the mood.
United drew this semi-final 2-2 at Old Trafford, with Sir Matt Busby’s side knocked out of the European Cup 5-3 on aggregate by the Spanish giants. The match came just under a year before eight members of the team died at Munich.
Click to play…
Manchester United v Real Madrid, Old Trafford, 25 April 1957
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Real Madrid’s 19 goal Argentinian Gonzalo Higuaín will almost certainly leave Los Merengues at the end of the current campaign but could Sir Alex Ferguson make a move for the former River Plate striker? Higuaín, who can boast a goal-a-game ratio this season, does not fit into President Florentino Pérez’ long-term plans.
It’s a remarkable situation for the 22-year-old forward, who has become the victim of Madrid’s bizarre internal politics this season. Despite the outstanding strike-rate, Higuaín is caught in an argument between Pérez and Real’s Sporting Director Jorge Valdano.
Argentinian Valdano wants his compatriot to remain in the Spanish capital, while Pérez prefers his own acquisition Karim Benzema for the central striker’s role in a 4-3-3 formation. It’s a view shared by a number of Madrid’s players according to the Spanish journalist Guillem Balague, who reports that El Presidente received phone calls from unnamed Galácticos criticising Higuaín’s recent selection.
With Real bent on bringing Franc Ribéry in from Bayern Munich and Cristiano Ronaldo taking the other wide berth, Higuaín is now surplus to requirements.
Moreover, Real’s Champions League defeat to Olympique Lyonnais last week signed coach Manuel Pellegrini’s death warrant, who will lose his job at the season’s culmination even if Los Merengues beat Barcelona to La Liga in May.
Forever the President’s puppet, Pellegrini is responsible only for day-to-day coaching and had practically no say in Real’s extravagant €260 million summer transfer splurge that brought Benzema, Kaká, Ronaldo and Xavi Alonso to Madrid.
Herein lies the crux of Real’s politics.While the Champions League is the heartbeat that keeps the club alive, failure in Europe’s premier competition cannot be tolerated by Real’s executives. More to the point Pérez is hardly likely to blame his ‘project’ for the humiliating fashion in which Madrid capitulated to Lyon.
French-born Higuaín, contracted to Madrid until 2012, is unlikely to remain a Madridista beyond the FIFA World Cup. Indeed, the nine-time European champions will probably hold on to the striker until after the tournament in the hope that it will boost the player’s value.
Selected only for Argentina’s final two qualifying matches, El Pipita was inexplicably ignored by coach Diego Maradona in favour of home-based veteran Martín Palermo. It remains to be seen whether Higuaín will lead Argentina’s attack at in South Africa this summer.
Meanwhile in Manchester Ferguson has key decisions to make about United’s forward line, with the side exposed to an over-reliance on Wayne Rooney’s goals. It’s an understandable, if risky, problem given the failure of Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov to match the England international’s strike rate this season.
Owen, sidelined for the main part of the campaign before succumbing to familiar hamstring problems, was a low-risk budget option whose impact has been minimal. Meanwhile Berbatov is now perennially cast as an understudy despite a number of sparkling displays in the past month.
With Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda not yet ready for regular first team duty, Ferguson may find that Higuaín’s pace and finishing is the smart choice to boost United’s attacking options next season.
Real is ready to sell. Is United prepared to buy?
It’s not often that the United board have received praise on this website over the past five years. But praise they must receive after Sir Alex Ferguson and Managing Director David Gill played hardball for more than a year in the face of Real Madrid’s relentless pursuit of Cristiano Ronaldo. It was a game of brinkmanship that – while ending in the inevitable transfer of the Portugese winger to United’s European rivals this week – ensured a world-record fee and a massive profit on the player. The board must now follow through and provide all of the funds to Ferguson for squad strenghtening. The alternative – ploughing the funds into the black hole of the club’s finances – would be an admission that United’s £669 million Glazer-induced corporate debt now comes first, and success on the pitch second.
But United haven’t always been so successful in their transfer dealings. The move of David Beckham to Real Madrid in 2003, for example, was criminally undervalued. Beckham, who in 2003 was at the peak of his physical and commercial powers, was sold for just £18 million plus bonuses. United eventually accepted a flat £23 million fee for Beckham and Madrid laughed all the way to the club shop, on the back of a massive increase in commercial revenues. United were then led by Peter Kenyon, now a director at Chelsea, and many fans and pundits felt that it was his incompetent handling of the deal that ensured the Reds were at least £10 million short of a fair market price for the player.
Incoming transfers have been poorly handled too. The year before Beckham’s departure to Madrid, United paid more than £30 million for Rio Ferdinand. While Ferdinand has proven to be an excellent acquisition over the long term, his then central defensive partner at Leeds United, Jonathan Woodgate, moved to Newcastle for a third of the price later than season. Leeds were in desperate need of cash, and United had no competition for Ferdinand’s signature. Moreover, it was widely believed that Leeds’ asking price for the player before the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea had been less than £20 million.
Bad deals are not the preserve of the Kenyon era however. There is also last summer’s transfer of Dimitar Berbatov, in which United blinked first when Manchester City threatened to muscle in on the deal at the 11th hour. After waiting all summer to sign the Bulgarian, in the hope of striking a more favourable deal with Tottenham Hotspur, United eventually paid five million pounds over than their original ceiling for the striker. The player himself paid a heavy price by missing the entire pre-season training programme.
The Reds’ board must now be as hard-nosed in their summer recruitment as they have been with Real Madrid over the transfer of Ronaldo. The club’s pursuit of Antonio Valencia, Franc Ribéry, Karim Benzema and others will now come with additional media scrutiny, and knowledge on the part of the selling clubs that United’s management have cash in their pockets. If United truly believe that the older Ribéry is in a similar bracket to Ronaldo, for example, then Bayern Munich are right in holding out for a reported £60 million fee. About £30 million too much it would seem.
Meanwhile, new President Florentino Peréz believes that Real Madrid can once again increase commercial revenues to cover the cost of Ronaldo’s acqusition. But contrary to Peréz’ claims, the club’s €600 million debt (similar sums have been written off twice in 2001 and then 2007) suggests, despite a massive increase in commercial revenues over the past five years, that the spend, spend, spend policy is unsustainable. But if it goes pear-shaped, at least Real will always have the local council to bail them out.
News that Real Madrid have spent an eye watering £139 million to bring Brazilian midfielder Kaká and our very own Cristiano Ronaldo to the Santiago Bernabeau heralds the second coming of President Florentino Pérez and his now infamous ‘Galácticos’ policy. With a reported €300 million transfer budget at his finger tips, Pérez has been typically bullish by announcing his target list that includes David Villa, Xabi Alonso, Franc Ribéry, David Silva and Raúl Albiol. Indeed, Villa will probably follow Kaká and Ronaldo to Madrid by signing for Los Merengues this week for a fee in excess of £30 million.
Pérez was first President of Madrid between 2002 and 2006 when he instigated the ‘Zidanes y Pavones’ transfer policy, which saw the club spend vast sums on bringing in world stars, while filing out the squad with youth teamers such as the much riddiculed Francisco Pavón. The policy began with the contraversial transfer of Luís Figo at a cost of £38.7 million from FC Barcelona in 2000, with Real forcing through the transfer after signing a pre-contract agreement with the player that included a massive penalty clause if the player reneged on the deal. It was a similar agreement to the one it is claimed (but denied) that Real signed with Ronaldo last summer. Then followed Zinedine Zidane for a world record £45 million from Juventus in 2001, (the Brazilian) Ronaldo for £26 million from Inter Milan in 2002, and then David Beckham at £25 million from United in 2003.
But the policy largely failed because it was driven more by marketing than the needs of the team. Pérez was prepared to spend vast sums and wages on star names but this was rarely the case for defensive players. Indeed, it was a policy that led to the departure of Claude Makélélé to Chelsea in 2003 for a huge wage increase. It was also claimed by one Madrid director that the club brought in David Beckham rather than Ronaldinho – the player Sir Alex Ferguson wanted as the Londoner’s replacement – because the Brazilian was ‘too ugly’ to sell shirts.
Madrid under Pérez was also a club riven with factionalism and in-fighting, where the manager had minimal input into team selection and precious little time to succeed. In fact success was no guarantee of a job the following season – Vincente del Bosque was famously sacked in 2003 after winning La Liga because he fell out with Pérez. Many other managers followed. This instability meant that during Pérez’ first spell in charge the team won La Liga in 2001 and 2003, and the Champions League in 2000 and 2002. Was this really enough silverware given the club’s vast expenditure?
Now Pérez appears to be instigating a new Galácticos era that bares all the hallmarks of the past. Time will tell whether the club manages to find the appropriate balance between huge expenditure on big name attacking players, and the stability that comes with a long term manager and solid defensive unit. Many will have their doubts despite the huge names signing on the dotted line.
Cristiano Ronaldo will finally move to Real Madrid after Manchester United’s board accepted a phenomenal £80 million bid for the player today. The offer from Madrid, which United claim is unconditional, will be the second time the Spanish side have set the world-record for a transfer fee this summer after Kaká moved to Santiago Bernabeau for £59 million earlier this week.
In a statement Manchester United said that they had accepted the offer at “Cristiano’s request” because the player had “again expressed his desire to leave, and after discussion with the player’s representatives, United have agreed to give Real Madrid permission to talk to the player. Matters are expected to be concluded by 30 June.”
Real Madrid confirmed only that they are trying to buy the rights to Ronaldo and that they “hope to reach an agreement with the player in the next few days.”
United finally accepted the bid for Ronaldo today after fighting off Madrid’s aggressive advances for the player over the past three years, and in particular the previous 12 months. So angry were Sir Alex Ferguson and the Manchester United board that they complained to FIFA about an illegal approach by the Spanish side last summer. Ferguson went so far as to say he wouldn’t “sell Madrid a virus,” let alone Ronaldo.
Clearly the situation has changed this summer, enabling Madrid to pounce and bring Ronaldo to the Spanish capital. The player, who has repeatedly said that he wants to stay at Old Trafford in recent weeks, has kept his council better than last summer, inflaming the club’s hierachy less than in the past. But Ronaldo’s much stated “dream” that that he wants to play in Spain, and specifically with Real Madrid, has apparently never gone away. This much is clear if he has asked for the transfer, as is hinted at in United’s statement.
The change in Presidency at Real Madrid has also made a huge difference and enabled the transfer to go ahead. Not only is new Madrid President Florentino Peréz an operator at the highest level but he has a strong relationship with Manchester United’s Managing Director David Gill, with the pair having encountered each other frequently in work for UEFA. Peréz’ predecessor Ramon Calederon was far less subtle, infuriating Manchester United’s board and manager along the way with his open courting of Ronaldo, even after the club had said no time and again. Peréz’ re-election has also enabled Madrid to open a line of credit with the banks, which will be used to finance the deals for Kaká and Ronaldo.
Ferguson – in hindsight – have also been preparing for life without Ronaldo. The manager has adapted the team’s tactics over the past year. United have moved from a 4-3-3 in 2007-8 to something closer to a 4-2-3-1 over the past season, with Ronaldo (save for a few games towards the end of the campaign when he played centrally) used in a more conventional wide-right role. In part this was to accommodate Dimitar Berbatov as the team’s attacking pivot. As a consequence United can plan for next season without altering their tactics. Berbatov will be shadowed by Wayne Rooney – a move that will surely liberate the player to perform at the level he has with England this season – with Antonio Valencia due to come into the side on the right wing. Nani, Zoran Tosic, Ji-Sung Park and potentially a big name new summer signing will fight it out for the other wide spot.
Whatever Ferguson decides to do with his £80 million plus summer transfer fund, he will need to re-inject some pace and verve into the attacking unit without Ronaldo and – almost certainly – Carlos Tevez. Names such as the aforementioned Valencia alongside Franc Ribéry and the phenomenally talented Karim Benzema will surely be front of Sir Alex’.
The fans meanwhile will mourn the loss of Ronaldo’s incredible contribution to the team but perhaps not the man. While many consider Barcelona’s Lionel Messi to be the more technically gifted player, there has rarely been a footballer with more destructive talents than Ronaldo. His pace, even when running with the ball, shooting from distance, positional play that enable him to score so many goals from a wide start, and ability in the air mark him out as irreplaceable.
However, few fans will shed a tear for Ronaldo, the man, after he leaves Old Trafford for the last time. His histrionics on the field, ego within the dressing room and open courting of personal publicity off the pitch have often bordered on the unacceptable. After all United, even following multi-million pound takeovers and massive commercialisation, are still a fans’ club. And Ronaldo has little in common with the fans.