CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

Real returns to its obsession

Manchester United first knockout-phase threat to dream of 10th European crown

Alex Ferguson (l) and José Mourinho. / PAUL ELLIS PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU (AFP)

With this season's Liga having been forfeited to Barcelona — which saw its lead over second-placed Atlético stretch to 12 after Rayo beat Diego Simeone's team 2-1 on Sunday night — Real Madrid now reaches the business end of the current campaign as Manchester United comes to town. The pick of round-of-16 Champions League ties opens on Wednesday night at Madrid's Bernabéu stadium, with the second leg to be played in Manchester on March 5, by which time the result of Real and Barcelona's duel to reach the King's Cup final will also be known.

First up, Valencia hosts Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday, the Spanish team having come close to topping the qualifying group it shared with Bayern Munich.

Real is obsessed by the number 10, with the oft-cited quest for la décima having started a full 11 years ago after the club won its ninth European cup thanks to a majestic Zinedine Zidane volley that marked the zenith of the galáctico era. After the coach who had secured numbers eight and nine, Vicente del Bosque, was fired in 2003 (despite having won that season's Liga), Real floundered in the competition many fans feel it is destined to dominate.

While archrival Barcelona has kicked on with three wins, Madrid has failed to reach another final. José Mourinho, a former winner with Porto and Inter Milan, has seen his team fall twice at the semifinal stage. Now an old foe, Manchester United, threatens to lay waste to his dream of a victorious third bite at the cherry with Real, and a record third success with different clubs.

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson and Mourinho have great respect for each other from the time the latter spent in charge of Chelsea in the Premier League. Known as a keen practitioner of so-called "mind games," himself, Ferguson said in a recent interview that his Portuguese rival was a "brilliant" exponent of psychological warfare: "You are never quite sure what he is up to. I don't go down that road. I let him get on with it."

It must be assumed, then, that Ferguson's admission that he changed plans to play a second-string team in Sunday's match against Everton is the honest truth. Mourinho was at Old Trafford to see the English league leader trot out a routine 2-0 win, with Rio Ferdinand and Michael Carrick the only regular starters left out of the team. The Scot said he had planned to rest up to seven first-choice players but changed his mind after key rival Manchester City was defeated by Southampton.

For United, Robin van Persie scored his 23rd goal of the season and Real's defenders will be more than aware of the Dutch striker's potency. "Van Persie is on very, very good form," Sergio Ramos told The Guardian. "We hadn't seen him this good for years."

But it is in the midfield where this season's United may pose a bigger threat than usual. Having been exposed as somewhat hollow in the middle in two Champions league finals by Barcelona, the emergence of Tom Cleverley may be the answer to United's difficulties in converting defense into attack in the most demanding circumstances. "His way of striking a pass is similar to that of greats such as Guardiola, De la Peña or Beckham. He's very reliable, but he is also a great finisher," says Roberto Martínez, who coached Cleverly when he was on loan at Wigan.

"He hardly seems to be doing anything, as if he is not there. But a lot of Manchester United's play and its balance comes through him," comments Swansea City coach Michael Laudrup.

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