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23 February 2024

Real Madrid v Manchester United: Teams ready for 'acid test'

This combined pictures show Manchester United's manager Alex Ferguson gestures during a news conference at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid February 12, 2013. Real Madrid's coach Jose Mourinho (L) and Michael Essien attend a news conference at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid February 12, 2013. Real Madrid will face Manchester United in their Champions League soccer match in Madrid on Wednesday. (REUTERS)

By Reuters

Cristiano Ronaldo's Real Madrid displays have come as something of a surprise to former boss Alex Ferguson who described his form as "phenomenal" on the eve of Manchester United's Champions League tie at Real Madrid.

Portugal forward Ronaldo, sold by United for a world record fee of 94 million euros ($126.57 million) in 2009, faces his old club for the first time in Wednesday's last-16 first leg tie.

"Ronaldo is a better player than when he left us because of his maturity," Ferguson told a news conference at Real's Bernabeu stadium on Tuesday. "He's at the peak of his career now and the next three years will be the same. 

"I never thought he'd ever get the amount of goals he's scored. To score the goals he has scored is phenomenal."

Ronaldo, 28, has been in scintillating form since the turn of the year and warmed up for the United game with a hat-trick in a 4-1 destruction of Sevilla on Saturday, the 17th treble of his La Liga career.

United are riding high with a 12-point lead at the top of the Premier League while Jose Mourinho's Real have all-but given up on retaining their La Liga title after some erratic performances.

"I think it's a good time to be playing Real," said Ferguson. "We've got a fantastic lead in the league and we have everyone fit.

"When you come to this part of the season you usually have one or two or three players injured. We don't have that, which is a bonus.

"It's a shame we're meeting this early in the competition. I wish it had been (in the final) at Wembley."

United have won the European Cup three times. Their last triumph came against Chelsea in 2008 before they lost to Real's arch rivals Barcelona in the final in 2009 and 2011.

Ferguson said he was convinced his side could go one better this season.    

"There's a great spirit about them," he added. "The reality is this team doesn't know when it's beaten, which is a great quality.

"The acid test is tomorrow and we have to get through it if we are to win this trophy."

Ferguson said Japan midfielder Shinji Kagawa would feature at some point on Wednesday.    

"We didn't play Shinji (against Everton) on Sunday because he had a long trip back from Japan," the manager explained.

"I wanted him fresh in case I decided to use him tomorrow so I rested him. He will certainly be involved at some stage tomorrow."

Mourinho is sure Real Madrid will rise to the occasion

Real Madrid may have lacked motivation against lesser teams this season but coach Jose Mourinho believes they will rise to the occasion in Wednesday's Champions League showdown with Manchester United.

The last-16 first leg match represents the first time the clubs have met in almost a decade and Mourinho said on Tuesday it was the kind of challenge he and his players relished.

"We all want to play against big opponents, big coaches, big players, big teams and United represent all of that," Mourinho told a news conference at Real's Bernabeu stadium. "I think it's easier for the players.

"One of the things we have missed this season is the appetite and motivation to play against smaller opponents and because of that we lost so many points in the Spanish league against teams we would normally beat.

"This is a little bit the history of this team. If history means something tomorrow we have the biggest opponent and we should have a good answer," said the former Chelsea coach who renews his rivalry with United counterpart Alex Ferguson.

The Champions League is the overwhelming priority for Real this term as their hopes of a second straight La Liga title have all-but disappeared after shock defeats to the likes of Granada and Getafe.

By contrast, Mourinho's men beat Barcelona over two legs to win the Spanish Super Cup and held their arch-rivals to a 2-2 draw at the Nou Camp in a league game in October.

Mourinho has faced United twice before at this stage of the Champions League, starting with his old club Porto's success on the way to winning the trophy in 2004.

As Inter Milan coach, the Portuguese lost to United in the last-16 five years later but during three years at Chelsea he suffered only one reverse to the Manchester club in all competitions, winning five games and drawing four.

Mourinho, who reiterated his desire to return to England when his stint at Real ends, would not be drawn on his tactical plans for Wednesday's game.

"I think they (United) also want to know what you want to know," he said. "We did tactical work today but you will have to ask your sources about it because I am not going to give anything away.

"We don't know if we will be successful but we are perfectly clear about what we want to do. For sure it's the most important match of this round of the Champions League," added Mourinho.

"This press room completely full is representative of what this match means to the world of football. Sometimes the expectation is high and the quality of the match is not so good but I hope the world gets what they want."