Despite their victories over Barcelona, Real Madrid face a completely different challenge against Manchester United

Real Madrid will be high on confidence after their successive wins over Barcelona but in Manchester United they face a completely different entity. Brendon Netto discusses..
 Brendon Netto
 Comment | Europe
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It’s been a great week for Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid. After beating Barcelona 3-1 in the second leg of the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey at the Camp Nou, they followed it up with another victory over their fierce rivals, this time in the league in front of their own fans.

Despite the 13 point gap between the two sides standing as a reminder of the gulf between them in La Liga, Madrid have enjoyed the better of their head-to-head encounters. However, as impressive and uplifting as those victories may be, they will mean very little from a tactical point of view when Los Blancos travel to Old Trafford for the second leg of their Champions League tie with Manchester United who won't be short of confidence either after their 4-0 win over Norwich City.

In high spirits

Madrid are widely recognized as the best counter-attacking side in club football and it’s that ability of theirs which was a prominent feature in their recent successive triumphs over Barcelona. However, United are not going to play the possession-based game that the Catalans persistently adhere to. Instead, they are more likely to contain Madrid like they did in the first leg when they managed a 1-1 away draw and could therefore negate the visitors’ threat on the counter-attack.

Mourinho’s men have found it difficult at times when sides sit back and attempt to frustrate them. They have struggled to carve out opportunities when their opponents have sat deep. Against the Blaugrana, they played almost exclusively on the break and on the few occasions that they did find themselves in a period of possession, their build-up play was unimaginative at best and they didn’t create enough from those situations.

Madrid have proved that they can match Barcelona when the two sides do battle but the reason they trail the league leaders by such a big margin is their inability to break the other teams down. When they’ve had to force the issue against the lesser sides, they have been thwarted far too often.

In the first leg against United at the Santiago Bernabeu, it was the visitors who looked to contain the La Liga champions and hit them on the break. United’s ploy was never to restrict themselves to operating only on the counter-attack, on the contrary, when they found themselves in possession, they were more than willing to indulge in their own build-up play. However, even when doing so, they remained cautious so as to deny Madrid the chance to hit them on the break.

“They weren’t carving us open, they were generally just playing in front of our defenders, across the width of the pitch. We were comfortable with that,” said Sir Alex when reflecting on the first leg at the Bernabeu and you can understand why.

Sir Alex in a confident mood

Madrid enjoyed the greater share of possession and had more shots at goal but when it came to creating clear-cut chances, the visitors were on par with their Spanish counterparts. In fact, United may even have had the better of the opportunities with two of the best falling to the normally clinical Robin van Persie.

Below is a table depicting the statistics from Madrid's games against Barcelona in the second leg of the Copa del Rey semi-finals (since both sides were at full strength in that encounter) and United in the first leg of their Champions League tie. 

Team Real Madrid vs Barcelona Real Madrid vs Manchester United
Total Shots 14   16 28   13
Shots On Target 8   3 8   6
Possession %
35   65 61   39
Long Passes %
15   5 8   15
Clearances 28   22 21   50

The table above suggests a sort of role-reversal for Madrid when they face United. While they surrendered possession against Barcelona, they dominated it against United. While 15% of their passes from their meagre possession against the Catalans were long balls, only 8% of their passes were converted into the same against United even though they saw a lot more of the ball.

The reason being, those long passes were effective when trying to hit Barcelona on the counter but against United, they were rarely afforded the opportunity to break. Instead, it was the English outfit who countered more often and hence had 15% of their passes played long. United effectively turned the tables on the Madridistas.

Ferguson claims his side were comfortable with what they had to deal with at the Bernabeu but that may be true only to a certain extent. They were forced into making a whopping 50 clearances throughout the game and had their goal peppered with 28 shots. However, 20 of those shots were off target with 15 of them coming from outside the box as the hosts pressed for a winner.

United's strategy paid dividends in Madrid

United on the other hand were far more efficient with their shooting, boasting an accuracy of 67% as opposed to Madrid’s 42%. In addition to that, 11 of their 13 shots came from inside the box, evidence that they created plenty of chances themselves.

The Red Devils will be keen to replicate their away performance by stifling Madrid in defense and creating chances when in possession. Madrid will be faced with a significantly different challenge as compared to their games against Barcelona.

Sir Alex will be the first to admit that there is a gulf in class between his side and Barcelona like he has done in the past but ironically it’s his team who could prove to be the sterner test for Madrid as opposed to the Catalans owing to their style of play.

When Jose Mourinho's troops thread onto the Old Trafford pitch, they will be confronted by a force not greater but more diverse than the one they faced at the Camp Nou. United may not be as threatening as Barcelona but by luring Madrid out of their comfort zone, they negate a large part of the threat they pose as well. Suffice to say, this will be an intriguing battle of wits between two fantastic sides. United hold the advantage with the away goal but there's still all to play for in this thrilling clash.


Who do you think will win? Leave your comments below or discuss with the writer on Twitter @BrendonNetto.

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