Madrid, United stir fond memories

Real Madrid against Manchester United (live, FOX Soccer, Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. ET) has the ring of a classic Champions League final. Madrid are nine-time winners of the trophy, United have reached three of the last five deciders.

The clubs have met four times previously in Europe’s top club competition, with the ties bringing 31 goals in just eight games. The winners of these eliminators have then gone on to lift the trophy on three occasions.

Lucky for us then that the last 16 draw has brought them together now, with the first leg at Madrid’s cathedral-like Estadio Santiago Bernabéu on Wednesday.

Madrid’s talismanic attacker Cristiano Ronaldo, a man who knows both clubs so well, said this week he was expecting another historic and emotional clash of European titans.

“It is a tie between two great clubs, a great European duel,” Ronaldo said. “United is the best team in England. They are always very beautiful games for the fans, and very emotional. I am sure this tie will leave us with plays and goals to remember.”

The game surely brings back memories for Ronaldo. He arrived at Old Trafford aged 18 in summer 2003, just a few months after these side’s last momentous European clash, when Madrid edged out United 6-5 at the quarterfinal stage of the competition. The second leg at Old Trafford, in which Brazilian striker Ronaldo scored a memorable hat trick and David Beckham sprung from United’s bench to score twice, was an instant soccer classic.

Madrid’s current Ronaldo also entered the record books during his six seasons in England. He scored 118 goals in 292 games, winning one Champions League trophy, three Premier League titles, one FA Cup and two League Cups, before Madrid paid $128 million to seize him away from Old Trafford.

“It will be special because I have a lot of affection for the club,” Ronaldo says of meeting with old-friends including his former boss Sir Alex Ferguson. “But a game is a game. I will try to help my team to knock them out.”

These comments show that while Ronaldo’s three and a half seasons in Madrid have not brought as much silverware as his time in England, they have seen him mature both on and off the pitch.

The Portuguese national team captain, who turned 28 last Tuesday, still boasts a trendy hairstyle, but he has become a better player in Spain. While upping his goalscoring rate to 179 goals in 178 matches, his game also now includes greater awareness of his teammates and a higher defensive work-rate.

Such all-round performances have been more important than ever for Madrid this season, given its issues elsewhere. Recent weeks have brought glimpses of last season’s imperious form [the 5-0 hammering of Valencia] but also a worrying lack of focus and desire at unexpected times [last weekend’s 0-1 at strugglers Granada].

Besides the poor on-field results, Madrid’s season has also brought off-field issues ranging dressing-room bust-ups to an all-out war with the local press. Meanwhile bitter rivals Barcelona have streaked 16 points clear in the Primera División standings, and even city rivals Atlético are ahead of Mourinho’s side in the table. Given the ongoing turmoil, the futures of both Portuguese stars at the club remain very much up in the air.

The latest injury news from the Madrid camp is also concerning. Ronaldo says he is over a recent thigh-strain and fearsome defender Pepe is back in training, but key midfielder Xabi Alonso and emerging French defender Raphaël Varane withdrew from their national squads this week and are doubts to start on Wednesday.

No surprise then, that Madrid fans are looking to history for some positive pointers. Los Blancos have advanced from three of their four meetings against the Red Devils and have only lost two of twelve home meetings with English clubs.

History was also on Ronaldo’s mind this week when he was asked what birthday present he was hoping for. Madrid’s last Champions League win is now over a decade past, and each year the hunger for ‘la Décima’ – the club’s fabled tenth European Cup trophy – grows stronger. The Portuguese attacker knows just what he – and they – want most.

“The first present I would ask for is ‘La Décima’,” he said. “That is very special for Real Madrid, after so many years without winning it, and also very special for me. The Champions League is the biggest competition for a player. I am very excited about winning it this year.”

When Ronaldo and company run out at the Bernabéu on Wednesday they know they are not just facing a test against England’s best side. They are playing to save their season. And for the chance to write their name’s into European footballing history.