One of the biggest games in European football takes place tonight as Manchester United try to overturn a two goal deficit against Real Madrid at Old Traford.
Realbeat United 3-1 in the first leg at the Bernabeu with two goals from Raul and a goal from Luis Figo. United still have hopes of progressing thanks to Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s away goal.
The sides go into the game with differing form. United beat Blackburn at the weekend to maintain their push for the Premier League title, while Real were held at Barcelona on Saturday and were hammered by Sociedad the week before.
Real were also rocked by the news that Raul will miss the game after being struck down with appendicitis.
Coach Vicente Del Bosque admits his absence is a setback, but not a crucial one.
“Raul’s absence is a setback, he said. “He’s a player who can add something in any situation, but we’ve got a strong squad and can cover for him.”
It looks likely that Real will play with Ronaldo as a lone striker in the Spaniard’s absence, with Guti moving into a five man midfield.
Alex Ferguson believes Raul’s absence will hinder Real, but admits he has already contributed more than enough to this tie.
“Raul has already done his damage” he points out.’ But he is still a massive loss for them. He’s Real’s best player, and if you don’t have your best player it makes a difference.”
United have selection problems of their own. Both Gary Neville and Paul Scholes are suspended, while John O’Shea faces a late fitness test. Fabian Barthez has been declared fit to play and Juan Sebastian Veron may figure at some stage after a lengthy spell on the sidelines.
Phil Neville may start at left back and the manager must choose between Beckham and Solskjaer on the right wing. Ferguson admits the task his side faces is huge, but his side has faced similar challenges before and prevailed.
“We have a big challenge to claw back the advantage Real Madrid have. I feel that the tie certainly isn’t over. It’s a difficult one, but then, we have had so many difficult challenges in the past, and it is one I hope we manage to manoeuvre.”
Ferguson believes United are currently in their best form of the season, which bodes well for them tonight.
“I think our form is probably the best it has been all season. We are playing good football and creating opportunities in matches. I think that gives youa chance in any game.”
United skipper Roy Keane believes this could be his side’s biggest game ever.
“This is the biggest challenge this side has ever faced but we will never be in a better position to rise to it,” Keane said.
“Our form is good, confidence is really high and the number of chances we are creating is frightening.
“Our European form over the last year or two has been very good but the ultimate is going on to win it like Real Madrid have done nine times.”
His opposite number Fernando Hierro believes that the second leg will be a lot tougher than the first game.
“I’m sure we are going to suffer in Manchester and it’s going to be 90 long minutes,” he admits.
“We don’t expect United to be come at us as timidly as they did at the Bernabeu.”
He claims that despite recent setbacks, Real remain confident.
“The state of mind of the team is good. One must remain optimistic and I think things will come good.”
Italian referee Pierluigi Collina will take charge of tonight’s game, amove that has been welcomed by both managers.
As Hierro points out “Collina will not act for you or act against you because heis the best in the world.”
The winner to the tie will go on to play Juventus in the semi-finals.
Manchester United : Fabien Barthez; Wes Brown, Rio Ferdinand, Mikael Silvestre, John O’Shea; David Beckham, Roy Keane, Juan Sebastian Veron, Ryan Giggs; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Ruud van Nistelrooy.
Real Madrid: Iker Casillas; Michel Salgado, Fernando Hierro, Ivan Helguera, Roberto Carlos; Luis Figo, Claude Makelele, Flavio Conceicao, Zinedine Zidane; Guti, Ronaldo.