Sir Alex Ferguson said that Manchester United versus Real Madrid is "the tie of the round". It would be the tie of any round you could ever draw.
Two of the biggest clubs in European football meet in the last 16 of the Champions League. They have always had eyes on each other and have produced some of the most memorable games in the history of the European Cup.
This time Real will come to Manchester with part of United's past ready to shine on the Old Trafford pitch while in their dugout might sit United's future. Even at the Bernabeu, Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho stand out as the two stars and this tie will have special meaning for both of them.
Ronaldo was United's greatest player of the modern era. In six seasons at Old Trafford he scored 118 goals, won three Premier League titles, an FA Cup, two League Cups and one Champions League. In his final three seasons – in all of which United were Premier League champions – he produced the highest consistent level of attacking football England has arguably ever seen.
Since Ronaldo left United, in exchange for £80m, they have not been the same side. They have won one Premier League and one League Cup in three seasons and struggled, as any team would, to replace his brilliance and his goals. He will certainly receive the gratitude of 76,000 United fans at Old Trafford on 5 March but will also provide a painful reminder of the outfit they used to be.
Ronaldo has never exactly been averse to attention and will relish the stage. "I'm sure it's going to be a special game for him," said Emilio Butragueno, Real Madrid's director of institutional relations.
Ferguson also loves taking on the best, and is understandably excited about facing two rather different former protégés of his. "Well, it's the tie of the round," the manager told ManUtd.com. "It's a great opportunity for our fans to see Cristiano again and also for me to meet up with Jose again – I'll need to order some good wine!"
Ferguson and Mourinho have always been close. Mourinho took very obvious pleasure knocking United out of the Champions League with Porto in 2004, one of the games which helped to make his name in England, the country where he values his standing more than any other. Since then he has won the title in England, Italy and Spain as well as a Champions League with Internazionale and a lifetime's worth of domestic trophies.
Mourinho did return to Old Trafford at this stage four seasons ago to lose disappointingly 2-0 with his Inter side. He must have a much better chance this season, though, with the champions of Spain playing for him. His side beat Barcelona to the Spanish title last year, precipitating the end of Pep Guardiola's historic tenure at the Nou Camp.
It was the latest success on a CV good enough to make himself the strongest candidate to take over at United when Ferguson eventually retires. United will certainly need a strong personality to replace the Scot. Everyone knows what Mourinho is about but another triumph would certainly strengthen his case to step up to the Old Trafford throne when Ferguson does step down.
If the tie is half as good as the last encounter between these two teams, those watching will never forget it. The first galactico side, featuring Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and the original Ronaldo faced United in the quarter-finals in 2003. Madrid won 3-1 at the Bernabeu before Ronaldo scored an astonishing hat-trick at Old Trafford, as United won 4-3 but lost the tie. Three years before that, at the same stage, Madrid won 3-2 at Old Trafford, inspired by Fernando Redondo, and went on to lift the trophy.
The United-Real showdown is so good it rather detracts from Arsenal against Bayern Munich, which will not be bad. Bayern are not the German champions but they are currently top of the Bundesliga, nine points clear of Bayer Leverkusen with half of the season gone. They have reached two of the last three Champions League finals but lost disappointingly to more robust sides in Internazionale in 2010 and Chelsea this year.
Bayern do have the spine of the Germany side in Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger. They also boast two brilliant wingers, Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben, and Spain's brilliant young midfielder Javi Martinez, signed from Athletic Bilbao for €40m (£25m) this summer. They used to have Lukas Podolski, now at Arsenal, and he said his new team could upset the odds. "Bayern is a big club, but there are two games, home and away, so both teams have a chance to win."
Arsène Wenger said before the draw had been made that "the German clubs have made a big, big leap forward". His centre-back Per Mertesacker, signed from the Bundesliga last year, knows just how good Bayern are. "We will face a team in Germany," Mertesacker told Arsenal Media. "They are top of the league and went through to the knockout stage in a phenomenal way. They have the advantage with the second game being at home. I think Lukas Podolski and me especially are looking forward to it."
Bayern are currently one week into their winter break. Arsenal will play five times before Bayern resume on 19 January and Mertesacker hopes when they meet his side will still be in form: "They only conceded seven goals in the first half of the season. They can rest a bit now. Maybe it's a good opportunity for us to face them in February because we will be in our rhythm. We will hopefully go through the Christmas period in a strong way."
Stats magic: Last 16 in numbers
17 Seasons since the last eight of the Champions League had no Premier League sides (1995-96)
1 Win for English clubs in 12 matches away to Bayern Munich – Norwich City, in October 1993
31 Goals in eight games between Real Madrid and Manchester United - the most recent a 4-3 home win for United in April 2003
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