19:45 KO (BST), Tuesday 8th August, Philip II Arena (Skopje, Macedonia)
Following Sunday’s initial curtain-raiser between Chelsea and Arsenal, football is officially back. So what better way to celebrate the new season than with another curtain-raiser, right? This time we head into the continent as Champions League winners Real Madrid come up against Europa League victors Manchester United.
Just as with Sunday’s Community Shield, nobody is quite sure as to how seriously we should be taking this match. The name alone suggests that winning it is something to be proud of, but as with any pre-season contest, the result can always be taken with a pinch of salt.
Between 2004 and 2012, the bragging rights alternated year-on-year between the Champions League and Europa League (or UEFA Cup) winners. However, in the last four years, the winners of the more elite competition has come out on top.
Important or not, two questions will be certain: Does this trophy add another finger onto Mourinho’s infamous ‘treble’ and just how angry will the Portuguese be with the 12-hour round-trip to Macedonia?
Last Time Out
Real Madrid 1-1 MLS All-Stars (Friendly)
It was Real Madrid’s turn to face the best that the MLS has to offer. The likes of Kaka, David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco took on Los Blancos and earned themselves a 1-1 draw, as the All-Stars’ English-born forward Dominic Dwyer cancelled out Borja Mayoral’s opener with an 86th-minute header.
Zinedine Zidane used the match to give his whole squad some game time, as the likes of Marcelo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema all came on as substitutes for second-half cameos. Only Cristiano Ronaldo and Luka Modric were completely absent from the game, but are expected to return against Manchester United.
The narrative of the game was a family affair for the Zidanes, as Zinedine brought on his son, Luca, as a replacement goalkeeper. It was the Frenchman’s first senior appearance for Madrid, and he was the hero as he saved Dwyer’s penalty in the shoot-out.
Manchester United 2-1 Sampdoria (Friendly)
United’s last pre-season friendly took them to Dublin to face-off against Italian side Sampdoria. A packed-out Aviva Stadium witnessed a comfortable win for Mourinho’s men, with goals from Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata.
Mkhitaryan’s goal, in particular, caught the eye. An indirect free-kick for Sampdoria was blocked by the United defence, igniting a rapid counter-attack. Antonio Valencia, Mkhitaryan and Matteo Darmian combined to create the attack before the Armenian headed in. It was the 28-year-old’s third pre-season goal as he looks set for a big second season at Old Trafford.
New signing Nemanja Matic also made his debut in the match with a strong 45-minute cameo. Whilst Matic admitted that he was ‘not 100% ready’, he put in a composed performance and already looked like a positive influence in United’s midfield.
Real Madrid Lineup
Real Madrid are at full strength for the match on Tuesday. Zidane even sprung a surprise by including Cristiano Ronaldo in the match-day squad; the Portuguese star has only just returned to training after an extended break, but his manager is reportedly happy with his fitness levels.
Manchester United Lineup
Mourinho is without centre-backs Phil Jones and Eric Bailly for Tuesday’s match due to suspensions picked up in last season’s Europa League campaign.
Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and Jesse Lingard were carrying knocks from pre-season, but are still expected to be part of the match-day squad. Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo and Ashley Young are all long-term absentees.
Key Battle: Luka Modric vs Paul Pogba
In terms of midfield match-ups, it doesn’t get much bigger than this. Luka Modric has become one of, if not the, best midfielders in Europe since leaving Tottenham Hotspur to become a Galactico in 2012, whilst Paul Pogba is considered by many to be a Ballon d’Or winner in the making.
Whilst many football sceptics would like you to believe that the Frenchman had an awful season last year, the statistics would tell you otherwise.
He made more shots (3.1), dribbles (2.4) and key passes (1.9) per game than Modric last season, despite being asked to play a slightly more defensive role than he is suited to. With Matic now sitting behind him, the leash is off and he is likely to get the freedom to express himself.
Regardless of the statistics, Modric is the ultimate big game player and will be the favourite to dominate the midfield come Tuesday night. In the Champions League final, he made Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira look amateur as he won his third European title with Los Blancos.
Can Jose contain Madrid?
As much as we all want to think that Manchester United will one day snap back into their maverick, free-flowing approach to a big game, we’re not going to see it anytime soon under Mourinho. It’s worth clarifying that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, especially against Madrid, but if the wall is breached early then the Red Devils could be in for a long night.
Against Ajax in the Europa League final, United had 30.9% of the possession and had a pass accuracy of 67%. Granted, they won quite comfortably and their opponents barely created a chance, but it’s not the calibre of statistics that will fill a fan with confidence.
It is unaffordable to let the likes of Toni Kroos and Modric have that much time on the ball, and if they sit back then they will be punished.
The positive from this style is United’s ability on the counter-attack. As Mkhitaryan’s goal in Dublin showed, the team is ticking nicely and their team-play is fluid and coordinated. With the Armenian and Anthony Martial on the wings, there are two pacy weapons to exploit the space left by Marcelo and Dani Carvajal.
The return of Ronaldo
It was a surprise for everyone when Cristiano Ronaldo was named in Real Madrid’s squad for Tuesday’s match. The Portuguese forward only joined up with the squad at the weekend, but has been thrust straight into the limelight – not that he would ever complain about that.
If there was a game to whip Ronaldo into shape, it’s a final. Ten goals in the Champions League knock-out stages alone – including back-to-back hat-tricks and a brace in the final – paint the picture of Ronaldo’s DNA.
Out of all of the players to play 90 minutes against Juventus – bar Keylor Navas – Ronaldo had the least amount of touches (37), yet had six shots and scored two goals. He is arguably one of the most clinical users of the ball in the world, and if he plays on Tuesday then it will be a massive test for United’s slightly makeshift defence.
Can Lukaku banish his Super Cup Blues?
Back in 2013, Romelu Lukaku was competing in another UEFA Super Cup final under a team managed by Jose Mourinho. That night signalled the end of his career as a Chelsea player, as his tame spot-kick was saved in a penalty shootout against Bayern Munich, losing his team the game.
This year, four years later, the Belgian is back. He is four years older, wiser and, without a doubt, better. He comes with a fresh £75m price tag and is Manchester United’s leading man. There’s no doubt that he has his critics – most of whom are the same pedantic crowd that berated Pogba all season – but early signs show that Lukaku is ready to prove them wrong.
He has looked sharp in pre-season, but this is the next level. He was criticised last season for not performing in big games – only scoring four goals against the top six last year – and has often reminded people of his will to play on football’s biggest stage. Well, this is his first chance and he will relish the chance to pit himself against two of the best in Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane.
PREDICTION: Real Madrid 3-1 Manchester United
Whilst the Super Cup has a tendency to throw up a shock, it’s hard to look past Real Madrid in any match they play at the moment. Yes, Manchester United are solid, but they’re not a touch on Juventus and look how they ended up.
It won’t be the hiding that the critics are predicting (easy to shout that about when it’s European champions against sixth in the Premier League) and Mourinho will make it difficult for his former employers, but as the match goes on I can see Zidane’s men proving their class.
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