As if there wasn’t enough at stake when two of Europe’s biggest teams go at it for a spot in the Champions League quarterfinals, there are even more reasons for emotions to run high at Old Trafford on Tuesday.
While one of Manchester United’s former stars — Cristiano Ronaldo — returns, the club’s longest-serving player — Ryan Giggs — is expected to hit another milestone.
And then there’s the game itself, with United and Real Madrid level at 1-1 following the first leg of the last 16 of the Champions League.
“As a European night I don’t think you can get any bigger than this one,” United manager Alex Ferguson said Monday. “Two great clubs, with great histories and it’s set up to be a potentially marvelous game.”
It will be Giggs’ 1,000th senior match, and Ronaldo’s first at United since becoming the world’s most expensive player in 2009 by swapping Manchester for Madrid for 80 million pounds (then $131 million).
Despite having seen his star player leave the club, Ferguson had nothing but superlatives for Ronaldo, calling him a “supreme athlete.”
“My biggest concern will be if he turns up,” Ferguson quipped. “What do you expect when you play against a team with Ronaldo in it? You expect problems during the night and we have you to try to curtail that as much as we can, as best we can. It won’t be easy.”
And United has to be careful it doesn’t get too distracted by Ronaldo to focus on its own game plan.
“If we go in wondering about the damage Cristiano can give us, then we will forget some of the things we can do ourselves,” Ferguson said.
It was Ferguson who helped to turn Ronaldo into one of football’s most lethal attacking forces during six seasons at United.
When Ronaldo left Manchester in 2009, few would have expected Giggs to still be playing at the highest level four years later.
But the 39-year-old Welsh winger remains at integral part of the team.
“You set out different goals at the beginning of your career,” said Giggs, whose latest contract takes him up to the end of next season. “You want to get into the team, then you want to stay in the team, then you want to win things and you never think you are going to get to a 1,000 games.
“I am proud of what I have done. I have worked hard, I have had a lot of things go for me — the continuity of the manager being here, playing with good players.”
Ferguson did rest Giggs on Saturday for the 4-0 rout of Norwich that took the team 15 points clear at the top of the Premier League. But it was only to save him for Tuesday, with Ferguson saying he “owed it to the lad,” although a decision is yet to be made on whether he will start or be a substitute.
“His experience on big game occasions will be vital to us,” Ferguson said.
Giggs has appeared in four Champions League finals and emerged victorious in 1999 and 2008.
It remains one Ferguson’s greatest frustrations in a reign stretching back to 1986 that he has only won the European Cup twice, leaving the club with three successes compared with Madrid’s nine.
Winning a 10th is the priority for Jose Mourinho to salvage something from a gloomy Spanish league campaign.
Although Madrid warmed up for the trip to England by beating Barcelona 2-1 on Saturday, the Catalan team is 13 points ahead in the title race.
Madrid hasn’t been to Old Trafford since 2003 when United won 4-3 but lost 6-5 on aggregate in the quarterfinals.
“Manchester is really strong but we’re going to Old Trafford with confidence,” Kaka said. “It’s a traditionally European squad that always goes far in the competitions they play in.”
Madrid could be boosted at United by the return of captain Iker Casillas, who is part of the 24-man squad despite the goalkeeper being out of action since fracturing his left hand in January.
Spirits are high in the Madrid camp after last week’s double success over Barcelona, with a place also booked in the Copa del Rey final by beating the league leaders on Tuesday.
“They were absolutely stunning on the counterattack,” Ferguson said. “So we need to find a way of coping with that.”
The “clasico” wins have taken some of the pressure off Mourinho, who is constantly linked with filling the Old Trafford hot-seat when the 71-year-old Ferguson eventually retires.
“It’s a question I can’t answer,” Ferguson said. “I’m still the manager here. I hope I’m the manager tomorrow.”