By Ben Hayward & Kris Voakes
He himself has spoken about it, Sir Alex Ferguson has talked it up, many Manchester United fans have dreamed of it, and now it is really happening – Cristiano Ronaldo is going back to Old Trafford.
Wednesday’s Champions League draw paired Sir Alex’s United side with Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid in the pick of the last-16 ties, made ever-more intriguing by the coach’s possible move to Manchester as an eventual replacement for Ferguson.
But all eyes will be on another Portuguese – Ronaldo. The former Sporting forward developed into the player he is today thanks to ‘father-figure’ Ferguson and always speaks fondly of his time at Old Trafford, where he spent six seasons before sealing his ‘dream’ Madrid move in 2009.
Three years on, the Portuguese has taken his game to new heights and has struck an incredible 169 goals in as many matches for the Spanish side. That form has seen him constantly compared to his nemesis, Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, but Ferguson believes his former player is just as good as the Argentine.
Now, on the biggest stage of all, in a wonderful fixture which evokes memories of David Beckham’s brilliance, Fernando Redondo’s outrageous back-heeled assist for Raul and a sensational hat-trick at Old Trafford by a Brazilian who shares his name, Ronaldo can write his own name on this special match-up.
When the mock draw was made on Wednesday, Uefa must have believed that the chance of a dream scenario had been used up a day early, but with lightning striking twice the governing body will have been left rubbing their hands with glee.
Beyond Madrid’s tie with United, there is another clash of true giants as AC Milan tussle with Barcelona for the fifth and sixth times in 18 months, meaning we will once more see two of Europe’s biggest footballing institutions battle it out. The Rossoneri may not be what they were, but they’re still one of the few clubs who can boast such a winning mentality in their fabric.
Elsewhere there are further fabulously interesting tussles. Celtic’s reward for already toppling Barcelona on their way to qualification to the last 16 is another huge task in the shape of the ever-improving Juventus, while Arsenal’s tie with Bayern Munich will offer a tantalising clash of styles.
Shakhtar Donetsk and Borussia Dortmund were two of the most impressive ‘outsiders’ in the group stage, and one of them will be rewarded with a quarter-final place, while the nouveau riche pair of Paris Saint-Germain and Malaga have the chance to take a huge leap forward on the continent with winnable meetings with Valencia and Porto respectively. The French giants’ clash with the Mestalla outfit will be particularly interesting given the two sides’ differing balance sheets in the Financial Fair Play era.
Come February, it will be left to the armchair fan to choose between a series of high-profile fixtures, and Uefa surely couldn’t be happier with how things have worked out. The Champions League knockout stage is set to begin with one of the most eagerly-anticipated series of fixtures in the competition’s long history.
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