| Steve McManaman and Luis Figo at Manchester Airport Tuesday. (AFP)
London: Manchester United will be pinning their hopes of a Champions League semi-final place on talismanic striker Ruud van Nistelrooy when they take on holders Real Madrid Wednesday.
The odds are clearly stacked against Alex Ferguson’s men at Old Trafford after they were beaten 3-1 by an imperious Real at the Bernabeu in the first leg of their quarter final April 8.
Even Ferguson has admitted that some of the football played that night by Real, with France’s Zinedine Zidane and Portugal’s Luis Figo in the midfield engine room, was mesmerising.
But van Nistelrooy’s strike during a gritty comeback by the visitors has given United hope they can yet turn things around, courtesy of a 2-0 win on the night and the away goals rule.
An early goal would certainly give United wings, undermine Spanish confidence and turn Old Trafford into a cauldron at a stroke. In Van Nistelrooy, who has scored a remarkable 41 goals this season for club and country, they have a man who can provide just such a breakthrough.
In his Norwegian strike partner Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, they also have a born predator whose stoppage time winner in the 1999 Champions League final brought mighty Bayern Munich literally to their knees.
However, United’s undeniable ability to score will only be half the equation Wednesday and it is the other half — a suspect defence — which has given cause for concern.
The loss of right-back Gary Neville through suspension is a blow to a rearguard which will pair England’s Rio Ferdinand and Frenchman Mikael Silvestre, who usually plays at leftback.
What has improved United’s chances to a degree, though, is the unexpected loss of the man identified as Real’s most important player, Raul Gonzalez.
The Spanish forward, rated by Ferguson as the world’s best player, had to undergo emergency surgery in a Madrid clinic Monday for acute appendicitis and has been ruled out.
Raul adds something more to the team than just a regular supply of goals, though. “We’ll be without the team’s emblem,” goalkeeper Iker Casillas recognised on the eve of the game.
Manchester United: 1-Fabien Barthez; 24-Wes Brown, 6-Rio Ferdinand, 27-Mikael Silvestre, 22-John O’Shea; 7-David Beckham, 16-Roy Keane, 4-Juan Sebastian Veron, 11-Ryan Giggs; 20-Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, 10-Ruud van Nistelrooy.
Real Madrid: 1-Iker Casillas; 2-Michel Salgado, 4-Fernando Hierro, 6-Ivan Helguera, 3-Roberto Carlos; 10-Luis Figo, 24-Claude Makelele, 16-Flavio Conceicao, 5-Zinedine Zidane; 14-Guti, 11-Ronaldo. (Reuters)