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Two footballers celebrated and despised in equal measure will face off next week on the grand stage of the Champions League - will the best man win?

Everybody expected UEFA to wave their magic wand and pit Manchester United against Real Madrid in the second round of the Champions League. The battle of Cristiano Ronaldo, the battle of the biggest clubs in the world, Sir Alex Ferguson against 'the Mob', and so on. It actually came as a surprise when the Spanish superpower were instead drawn against United's rivals Liverpool, leaving the reigning champions to face off against Inter in a tie with almost as many provocative permutations and potential for high drama before, during and after the tie. The football might be good, too - but I wouldn't bet on it.

Jose Mourinho, aided and abetted by Roman Abramovich, made the Premier League so fiercely competitive that almost all top-of-the-table clashes became fast-paced but slow-moving wars of attrition. Such a pragmatic approach is bound to translate well to a game like this, with his Inter side lacking in bonafide match-winners but nevertheless a colossal unit, up against a United outfit that has primed itself on constantly applying measured pressure and biding time before making that inevitable breakthrough.

While United have more flair to their front line, there is nevertheless a degree of reliance from both clubs on their star players to provide the magic that makes the difference every week. The game has already been billed not just as Sir Alex against the 'Special One', but also Cristiano Ronaldo against Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

It has the makings of a heavyweight title fight in itself. In the Blue corner, there is the tactical and indomitable Evander Holyfield of the piece up against the Red corner's relentless and destructive Mike Tyson, only perhaps slightly less insane.

The X-factor in this instance will be Jose Mourinho, doing his best Don King impersonation to try and see his special one over the line before the games even begin. It was the Portuguese coach who asserted to begin with, soon after the draw, that Ibra was superior to World Player of the Year Ronaldo, while Sir Alex has long lauded his No. 7 as the world's best player and even gone as far as to mention him in the same breath as Pele and Diego Maradona.

Jose and Sir Alex are rightly considered the two best managers in the world - certainly at club level - but it is their head-to-head record that will serve to boost Ibra's confidence. During Jose's time in charge of Chelsea, Fergie may have landed the last punch with his 2007 Premier League triumph, but there can be no doubting who won the fight on points.

However, with the teams pitted against each other, it is clear that the Red corner has more cause for confidence. Both sides top their respective leagues and are reigning champions, but United have been more convincing and prolific, not to mention their previous highs in Europe contrasted by the Nerazzuri's string of premature exits.

The delicate balance could end up being tipped one way or the other by the players themselves over the course of the two legs. Both are supposedly big-game flops, but Ronaldo's track-record inspires more confidence than Ibra's, if for no other reason than last season's Champions League final. Yes, he did miss a penalty, but so have the likes of Roberto Baggio for Italy, Steven Gerrard for England and Andriy Shevchenko for AC Milan in years gone by - what does that make them?

The two of them would struggle to differ more in style of play, but are certainly comparable in terms of their cult status, polarising of public opinion and attitude towards the game itself. Despite being three years Zlatan's junior, Cristiano has always applied himself in such a way as to consistently produce results. For all his posturing, Ronaldo has in many ways been a model professional and an advocate of the dictum that practice really can make perfect.

Ibra, meanwhile, still seems to play on his own terms. Not even Fabio Capello quite managed to wrap his head around the mercurial Swede's weird and wonderful ways - he didn't quite hit top gear. But now, he's playing for Mourinho. We saw it with Chelsea and we are now seeing it with Inter: misfits such as Adriano and Ibrahimovic high-fiving their boss after every goal, his racing down the touchline to celebrate the late winners - the Jose effect.

Nevertheless, it will be Ronaldo who saunters down to the ring next week with the Premier League and Champions League on each shoulder, wearing the Club World Cup as a crown and with the FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d'Or round his waist. He is the man: everything he has done, he has done to better effect than Ibrahimovic - but the time is right for change.

Ronaldo's downfall has already been scripted; it is prematurely being claimed that the 24-year-old's time at the top is coming to an end, for no other reason than his 'failure' to replicate what was a freak 42-goal season. Having said that, there is a wind of change sweeping over world football and Ibra could yet rally against Ronaldo and emerge the unlikely victor, finally realising his potential and beginning a new era of his own as the King of the Continent. Unlikely, maybe - but they don't call him 'Ibracadabra' for no reason, and even neutrals out there might be hoping that for once, this magician doesn't flatter to deceive.

Sulmaan Ahmad, Goal.com

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