Manchester United would have loved their Champions League tie with Real Madrid to take place tomorrow. Or perhaps even next week. It’s not that Manchester United look particularly menacing, it’s that Real Madrid currently look incredibly poor. But that could all change by the time they do meet in February.
There’ll be talk of that over-reliance on Robin van Persie, the leaky defence and the lack of a holding midfielder to help stem what was once the most dangerous counterattack in football. If Real can negotiate their way through a myriad of internal problems and walk away from it the better, they could once again start the engines for their blitzkrieg attack.
But we won’t know until next year. For Manchester United, they will remain mindful, cautious and fearful of the worst. What if van Persie isn’t fit? What about Nemanja Vidic? What if David de Gea’s mind turns to mush at the prospect out facing the old enemy and the world’s biggest football club? As has been mentioned, Real Madrid do have their own problems, but they are still comfortably one of the most talented and dangerous squads in all of football.
Manchester United on paper shouldn’t be good enough to beat Real Madrid. For every van Persie there is a Cristiano Ronaldo to counter. Wayne Rooney may decide to have a particularly impressive game, but so too may Karim Benzema. In the United midfield, there is nothing and no one who can match Mesut Ozil’s creative talents. No centre-back pairing at United can match the combination of ferocity and skill in the Real Madrid centre of defence.
It’s a blockbuster tie and one that should have the world watching: it’s the current Premier League leaders against the La Liga champions. But you can’t help but feel that United are in a mindset that this game has come too early, that their dominance of their group was for nothing. Real Madrid can be got at, they can be frustrated and they certainly can be beaten. But what a ride it promises to be if the Spanish side can rediscover their groove. On their day, there are very few who can overcome Real Madrid.
And that’s certainly how Arsenal should be looking at their opponents from Bavaria. Bayern Munich are top of the league, have a squad which is unquestionably equal in talent to that of Real Madrid and have only dropped points at home on three occasions this season.
Bayern will be out to put right the wrongs of the last Champions League campaign, where a stubborn yet completely surprising Chelsea side beat them for Europe’s greatest prize at the Allianz Arena. They’ve shown they can play stunning football, moving at pace and slicing through opposition defences. They also know how to stand firm in a winning position during games; Dante may be their signing of the season, even ahead of Javi Martinez.
But Arsenal are unpredictable and could find some of that old magic hidden away in the vaults of the Emirates. They too have played some breathtaking football this season, but they have also looked incredibly average and at times embarrassing.
Santi Cazorla is good enough to pick holes in any defence, but will his team-mates be up to the task of matching his level of output? Jack Wilshere will undoubtedly be Arsenal’s leader on the pitch, but will it be enough to counter that of Bayern Munich?
Finishing first or second in a Champions League group doesn’t matter to Arsenal. They’ve been knocked out in the past to AC Milan and also to Barcelona in consecutive years. Arsenal away often looks limp and uninspired, certainly not a team who can travel to Germany and pick up a result. They’ve beaten teams who are clearly inferior to them in the Champions League this season, yet they’ve fallen to teams a number a leagues below them in domestic competition.
Like with Manchester United and Real Madrid, Arsenal’s tie with Bayern promises to be exciting and one of the leading matches in the last 16. But there is also a very real possibility that this could be the end of the road for both English sides and the Premier League in Europe’s elite competition this season.