Sir Alex Ferguson will take his team to the Santiago Bernabeu tomorrow tasked with the problem that rival teams used to ask when they faced Manchester United; how do you stop Cristiano Ronaldo? Despite the former Old Trafford favourite terrorising sides since his move to Real Madrid in 2009, Ferguson may just have the answer.
Ferguson has always had a certain player that he would call on to man-mark key players out of a game, allowing his own strike-force to impose their footprint on the match instead. In recent years he would deploy Ji-Sung Park - and before him Darren Fletcher - whenever United would have key games, such as against rivals Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea, with the former South Korean captain deployed to nullify the impact posed by Yaya Toure, Cesc Fabregas and other threatening midfielders.
With Park having moved onto pastures new at Loftus Road, Ferguson was troubled that his 'big-time' man-marker had gone, and with the failure to bring in a defensive minded midfielder - Shinji Kagawa was most certainly signed to produce chances for goal-machine Robin Van Persie - are United suddenly exposed in a way they haven't been before?
No, it would seem. The signing of Phil Jones for a reported £16.5m - a fee that brought criticism from some areas, but optimism from Reds supporters that the deal would be of great value in the long term - was initially identified as a replacement for the ageing Rio Ferdinand, with Jones demonstrating a natural understanding of the defensive game while playing for Blackburn Rovers.
Teams seemed to work out Jones throughout his debut season when he appeared at centre-back, with his struggles prompting a move to right-back by the boss. But when United travelled to Anfield to take on long-time rivals Liverpool, Ferguson started Jones in a box-to-box midfield role that would see him latch onto Luis Suarez, demonstrating a talent for marking the lethal Uruguayan to limit his attacking threat.
This season, Jones has featured in the league just nine times, but we saw this role reprised last weekend against Everton. Once again, Jones stuck to the opposition's key man - in this instance the nuisance that is Marouane Fellaini - to make sure the tricky Belgian did not get a clear chance to target the tenuous Manchester defence. It worked, and suddenly fans of the Premier League leaders felt that they had found their man that could handle the Ballon D'or runner-up.
Since the last time they headed to Madrid, Ferguson has somewhat tweaked his teams tactical mentality. Instead of trying to ensure they scored one more than their opponents, they now aim to concede one less. With this seasons addition of Van Persie though, the red half of Manchester suddenly look like they have a perfect balance flowing through the side. Combining the two mentalities could be the key to unlocking the reigning Spanish champions.
Should he recover from a minor injury suffered in the second half against Everton, Jones will likely feature in a five-man midfield that will also contain Wayne Rooney, with the England striker dropping back to protect the midfield from Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil and company.
Ronaldo, who has a staggering 182 goals in 179 games during his spell in Spain, credits Ferguson with teaching him "the basics of football" during his six-year relationship with the club. However, we will see tomorrow evening if the student has finally become the master, or if there is no outsmarting Ferguson on his latest Spanish expedition.
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