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On Sir Alex Ferguson's team selection and tactics across the two legs

Matches between Manchester United and Real Madrid have always been emotional and entertaining ones. United may have lost the tie and got knocked out of the Champions League, but Sir Alex Ferguson won the tactical battle across the two legs by a huge margin. Here’s a look at the Scottish international’s team selection and why it was so effective against arch-rival Jose Mourinho’s:

First Leg:

David de Gea; Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Welbeck, Jones, Carrick, Rooney; Kagawa, Robin van Persie.

Real Madrid v Manchester United - UEFA Champions League Round of 16

Sir Alex has always been an unorthodox manager. And when the team-sheets were released, his unorthodox and shrewd nature was revealed with the inclusion of Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa for the match against Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu. The exclusion of Nemanja Vidic was also a surprise, but it was understandable as the Serbian international had just recovered from an injury and didn’t have any match time.

United were immediately on the back foot with Jose Mourinho’s side drowning United under wave after wave of attack. United coped well with the early pressure as David de Gea was forced into a couple of miraculous saves. That was when Sir Alex’s strange team-selection turned out to be a masterstroke. As Madrid pushed more men forward, United pushed Danny Welbeck forward with a long clearance. An ever-energetic Welbeck ran at the Madrid defense and earned United a corner. The resulting cross from Wayne Rooney found Welbeck, who directed a header into the back of the net. United had the all-important away goal. Ten minutes later, a moment of genius from the ever-charismatic Cristiano Ronaldo saw Madrid equalize. United went in to the half-time interval with the upper hand.

Realizing that Ronaldo was too much for Rafael to handle on the flank, Sir Alex changed tactics by charging Phil Jones to track his former talisman all over the pitch . As the match commenced after the interval, Sir Alex’s tactics once again showed the gaffer’s ability to analyse the game and provide the perfect remedy. Jones played like a monster in midfield tracking Ronaldo everywhere and not allowing him even a hint of space. Valencia, Anderson and Giggs were brought on in place of Welbeck, Rooney and Kagawa to preserve the stalemate until the end of the 90 minutes. The performances of Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and David de Gea were the highlights as United left the Bernabeu with their heads held high having won the tactical battle which enabled them to go into the second leg tie with an away goal advantage.

Second leg:

David de Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Cleverley, Giggs; Welbeck, Robin van Persie.

In the build-up to the second leg tie, Jose Mourinho said, “The world will stop to watch this tie.” The match was of utmost importance and United went into it holding the upper hand. When the United team-sheet was released, many were shocked at the selection by Sir Alex. The exclusion of Wayne Rooney was the biggest shock in an otherwise unorthodox team selection. Ryan Giggs started his 1000th match as a United player and Welbeck retained his place in the starting line-up. The inclusion of Nani was another surprise as Tom Cleverley replaced an injured Phil Jones. Many pundits predicted that Madrid would rout a below-par United line-up.

As the match began, Madrid were immediately in possession. But this time, something had changed. Madrid were unable to get into the final third and threaten de Gea’s goal in any manner. Ryan Giggs once again rolled back the years in an impressive performance down the right flank with Rafael for company. The duo kept Ronaldo in check and launched counter-attacks with immaculate precision. Danny Welbeck justified his selection once again with a stellar performance down the left flank as he ran at the Madrid defense with determination and grit. Nani, who had been previously labelled ‘the broken wing’, put in his best performance in many months as he contributed in attack as well as defense. United held the score at 0-0 and went into the half-time holding the advantage.

The second-half began brightly for United as the Red Devils grew in confidence and launched attacks of their own. In the 48th minute, a scramble in the Madrid penalty area caused Sergio Ramos to put the ball into his own net. Welbeck and Nani were both heavily involved that put United into the lead. Old Trafford could feel United closing in on victory as decibel levels reached a new high within the Theater of Dreams. Alas, Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir had other ideas. Nani was shown the red card on the back of an unintentional collision with Madrid’s Arbeloa in the 56th minute. Waves of fury swept across Old Trafford as a livid Sir Alex charged into the technical area. Despite the scandalous incident, the match had to go on. Luka Modric took advantage of the 10-man United to curl a shot past David de Gea to level the tie. A minute or so later, United’s prodigal son scored what turned out to be the winner.

Manchester United v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Round of 16

United still did not give up. Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia were introduced in place of Welbeck, Cleverley and Rafael to influence the game. As the clock struck 90 minutes, a chorus of ‘United! United! United’ resonated across Old Trafford as ‘Fergie time’ began. It just wasn’t to be for United as Cakir blew the final whistle, thereby knocking a fighting United out of the Champions League.

Despite the loss, Sir Alex showed why he is still one of the best managers in the world with his immaculate team selection and tactics. Stellar performances from Danny Welbeck, Ryan Giggs and Nemanja Vidic were the highlights for United. Nani didn’t hurt his chances of receiving a renewed contract with a brilliant first-half performance. Cuneyt Cakir ruined what was going to be a perfect night in Europe as Sir Alex and his team bowed out of the Champions League with their heads held high having been the better team across the two legs. If Jose Mourinho was auditioning to be Sir Alex’s replacement at United, he did a wonderful job and will be the first-choice after the Scot retires.

I salute the spectacle of February 13, 2013 and mourn the debacle of March 5, 2013.

“Independent of the decision, the best team lost” - Jose Mourinho, during the post-match press conference.

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