The ever-excellent Michael Cox’s analysis of the draw is here.
The prospect of Cristiano Ronaldo returning to Old Trafford is a welcome yet foreboding one. He was an absolutely fantastic player for United, but more than that, he was the first player since Fergie’s Fledglings (God I hate that term) whom the fans watched grow up from a talented yet callow rookie to a world-class player in front of their eyes. In contrast to Rooney (who joined United a year after Ronaldo), who arrived with the biggest set of expectations ever placed on an English player in generations, Ronaldo was acknowledged as having great ability yet unproven and relatively unknown. Rooney was the sure thing; Ronaldo had a lot to prove and David Beckham’s big boots to fill. Yet Rooney is arguably still trying to live up to his early, ecstatic potential, whereas Ronaldo is indisputably one of two best players on the planet.
For this matchup, Ronaldo is arriving as the focal point for a troubled Real team. 13 points behind Barcelona, some members of the squad at barely disguised war with Jose Mourinho, who is almost certain to leave in the summer. Yet by the same token Madrid have nothing to play for other than La Decima, the tenth European Cup, and for Mourinho, there’s the strong incentive to become the only coach to win the Champions League with 3 different teams. The motivation, or at least the craving, will be there.
In terms of tactics, while the thought of Ronaldo, averaging more than a goal a game for Real, cutting swathes through United’s currently porous defence will surely coax some industrial-size bricks from fans’ rear ends, Real’s left side occupied by Ronaldo and either one of Fabio Coentrao or Marcelo is tailor-made for the counterattacking tactics that Ferguson employed to great effect at Chelsea and Manchester City. Ronaldo cuts inside onto his favoured right foot, and doesn’t track back; the two left-back candidates are attacking full-backs and not particularly renowned for their defensive prowess. United’s right side of Antonio Valencia and Rafael Da Silva is probably the best such in Europe at the moment: tremendous going forward, quick, disciplined, yet creative and possessing great understanding between each other, Rafael is a feisty defender and Valencia covers for him capably. As such, Ferguson will not feel the need to change his setup too much, and will in all likelihood try and field the same side that he did in the Manchester Derby in the first leg at the Bernabeu. For Real, it will be interesting to see whether Mourinho will try and augment his left flank at the expense of moving his most important player to another position, and how Ronaldo’s ego responds to that in what is the first game against the side where he made his name.
Real Madrid vs. Manchester United
Galatasaray vs. Schalke
– Galatasaray were horrible in the group stages and it would be a big surprise were they to get past Huntelaar and Co.
Celtic vs. Juventus
– Notwithstanding the famous victory over Barca, Celtic are one of the worst teams to ever make it to the knock-out stages of the Champions League. Another ultra-defensive couple of matches from them beckons, but Juventus should go through easily.
Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich
– I remember this tie in the early 2000s, when Bayern, managed by Ottmar Hitzfeld, were the most well-drilled, robotically efficient team that was all but impossible to break down, and Arsenal were completely useless against them. Bayern’s style has changed completely, and while they’re not quite as intimidating as they were 10 years ago, Arsenal are a bit of a mess at the moment and it’s difficult to see them progressing past last year’s runners-up.
Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Borussia Dortmund
– The number of talented players that will be on the pitch for these teams over two legs is mouthwatering, and there should be goals. Dortmund won the ‘Group of Champions’ for a reason, and should prevail.
AC Milan vs. Barcelona
– Milan just about scraped through their group, lost two of their best players to PSG last summer, and while Stephen El Shaaraway and Urby Emanuelson are playing heroically, they have got worse than last year when they easily lost to the same opponents. Barcelona are less neurotic, less experimental than last year, and that should mean a dominating display against the Italians.
Valencia vs. Paris Saint-Germain
– All that money has to count for something. The knock-out stages are where Zlatan Ibrahimovic will really be expected to earn his pay, and while he has a reputation for ‘choking’ on the biggest stage, the other talents PSG have in their ranks – Javier Pastore, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Thiago Silva – will see them through.
Porto vs. Malaga
– Two evenly matched teams on paper, but Malaga have performed excellently so far and topped a difficult group. Isco and Joaquin are the key players, although if the former leaves during the winter transfer window as has been rumoured, the balance may shift. Porto are very experienced in Europe and again there are some exciting forward players, but likewise if Tottenham revive their bid for Joao Moutinho in January, things will be difficult.