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Surya Solanki takes a look at some of the key battles which could decide the outcome of the high-profile clash between Real Madrid and Manchester United..

On Wednesday night, English league leaders Manchester United will travel to the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium for the first leg of their Round of 16 Champions match-up against Spanish champions Real Madrid, in what can be regarded as the most eagerly anticipated match of 2013 so far.

The Red Devils come into this game on the back of an impressive 2-0 win over Everton, whereas the hosts from Madrid recorded an emphatic 4-1 win over Sevilla during the weekend. Although Los Blancos have been largely inconsistent this term, United can still expect an enduring and taxing ninety minutes of high-octane football.

Thus, in the build-up to the game, Goal.com presents you with three key tactical battles.

Rafael Da Silva
vs Cristiano Ronaldo

Aside for his horrendous display against Reading, Rafael Da Silva is currently in the midst of a decent season with Manchester United. Providing a new sense of defensive stability and tormenting down the attacking third when needed, Rafael has become a pivotal member of Ferguson’s troops these days.

Furthermore, his impressive output against Everton over the weekend, in which the 22-year-old produced one assist and also dealt well with the danger of Steven Pienaar on the flank, means that Rafael is likely to be given a starting role against Madrid.

Hence, the Brazilian will perhaps face the toughest test of his career yet by coming up against United old-boy Cristiano Ronaldo, who although started his career as a right-winger, has been primarily used on the left by Jose Mourinho.The 28-year-olded warmed up for the Champions League match with an astonishing hat-trick against Sevilla on Saturday and Real Madrid would surely need their talisman to be at his optimum best against United.

Ronaldo loves to run directly at the full-backs and with Rafael still learning the trait of pin-point tackling, this could easily result in some dire consequences for the right-back. Added to that, if Rafael is found loitering out-of-position, Ronaldo won’t take a second to exploit to gap left.

The 22-year old will have to ensure that there is no slip-up in concentration when he carries out his defensive duties and also not attack or tackle recklessly.  In the past, Rafael has been known to pick needless cards and put his team under pressure, as was the case in the 2009-10 season in a quarterfinal clash against Bayern Munich. But he has matured since then and hopefully for United, shall up his best display against arguably the best winger in the world.

Michael Carrick
vs Xabi Alonso

 

 
 

 

One of the key areas of the pitch which shall decide the course of the game is the midfield where the two teams have one of the most experienced players in Xabi Alonso and Michael Carrick.

Carrick is one of the most underrated players in England, someone who does his job consistently without much fuss. The former Tottenham player is the playmaker as he sits in front of the defence and sprays ball all over the pitch to find his team-mates. His calming influence on the play often results in United keeping possession and dominating the opposition. He is also known to be at the right place when tracking back and aid his backline.

Alonso, on the other hand, is widely regarded as one of the best deep-lying midfielders. He is famous for his long diagonal balls to the wingers and also his crunching tackles to break the opposition’s attack. He often double-teams with his defenders to track the run of the rival team’s forwards.

Although Carrick and Alonso won’t be directly involved in their battle as they the dictate the game from their own respective halves, both will have the onus of curbing each other’s influence in the centre of the park.

Therefore, the one who is able to maintain a greater degree of intensity and pressure, the one who is able to protect the back-four in a more systematic manner and the one who delivers the inch-perfect passes to his respective teammates at right moment, will come out victorious in this segment.

Maintaining possession and dominating the midfield is crucial in European ties and the team whose player wins this battle, will clearly stand a better chance of getting a positive result from the first-leg.

Robin van Persie
vs Sergio Ramos

Since switching his allegiance from the Emirates to the red side of Manchester, Robin van Persie continues his breathtaking attacking prowess in front of the goal, having scored 23 times this season and well en-route to capturing the Premier League Golden Boot award.

What’s striking about the Dutchman is his versatility where he will not stop at scoring goals but also be adept at creating opportunities for his team-mates. Not to forget his lethal left foot which comes handy for United is set-pieces. He is one of those forwards who could make the opposition pay dearly should they make even a mistake at the back. His link-up play not just with Wayne Rooney, but also Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez, has been telepathic is the reason as to why United have scored 82 goals this season. His USP is his ability to track behind but spring forward the very instant the defender gets too tight on him.

Sergio Ramos hasn’t had a great season with Real Madrid and what has been a constant in his career has been inconsistency. At his best, he is surely difficult to get past against as Barcelona realized at Camp Nou last season where the Spaniard was heroic at the back and was given the Man of the Match award in the famous 2-1 victory.

As mentioned in a recent interview, Ramos finds his tougher when a striker moves towards the midfield as it is difficult to track him. This is precisely one of the strengths of Van Persie and Rooney among the United ranks. Ramos also has an unhealthy habit of picking cards something which he needs to be wary of in such an important clash. Pace and heading ability helps Ramos makeup for the indecision he suffers from and Madrid will look to bank upon their experienced defender to put his best foot forward in the duel against Van Persie.


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