The 2012/13 campaign has widely been acclaimed as Rafael da SilvaÃ¢ÂÂs breakthrough season. After a few years slowly adjusting to life in the Premier League, the Brazilian right-back has improved his performances significantly to become a regular member of Manchester UnitedÃ¢ÂÂs starting XI, justifying his new No.2 shirt.
This week will provide Rafael with his biggest test of the season, and indeed the greatest test any full-back in world football can face Ã¢ÂÂ playing against Cristiano Ronaldo. Rafael, of course, has an advantage over many other right-backs, having played alongside the Portuguese winger for one season in 2008/09. Still, RonaldoÃ¢ÂÂs game has developed significantly since his move to Real Madrid Ã¢ÂÂ heÃ¢ÂÂs become even stronger, more prolific and is permanently used on the left flank Ã¢ÂÂ and Rafael will be in for a tricky evening in Madrid.
First, one important caveat Ã¢ÂÂ Rafael is likely to receive extra protection at the Bernabeu, from Phil Jones playing just ahead of him. His man-marking job on Marouane Fellaini on Sunday showed that Sir Alex Ferguson isnÃ¢ÂÂt afraid of compromising his own team shape to stop one particularly dangerous opponent, but the nature of JonesÃ¢ÂÂ job will probably be more similar to his performance at White Hart Lane last month. There, Jones played a right-sided defensive midfield role in front of Rafael, and restricted Gareth BaleÃ¢ÂÂs ability to dribble directly towards goal. Something similar against Ronaldo is likely.
Ultimately, however, Rafael needs to turn in a good individual display Ã¢ÂÂ Ronaldo stays extremely high up the pitch, so doubling up against him isnÃ¢ÂÂt always possible, especially as Real Madrid transfer the ball rapidly from defence to attack. So how will Rafael go about shutting Ronaldo out for 90 minutes?
The BrazilianÃ¢ÂÂs usual approach against opponents who drift inside is to stick to them very tightly. This was what he did against EvertonÃ¢ÂÂs Steven Pienaar at the weekend, and although the South African doesnÃ¢ÂÂt offer anything close to RonaldoÃ¢ÂÂs ability, theoretically he moves inside in a similar fashion. Rafael was happy to leave his right-back spot unguarded, following Pienaar all the way across the pitch into central positions. He won the ball in traditional right-back positions, but ushered Pienaar away from goal when in more central zones Ã¢ÂÂ not necessarily winning the ball, but forcing a backwards pass.
RafaelÃ¢ÂÂs tendency to be drawn inside makes it imperative that Antonio Valencia tracks Fabio Coentrao into defensive positions Ã¢ÂÂ while Real have the ball, Valencia is likely to become an auxiliary right-back.
Another concern will be RafaelÃ¢ÂÂs aerial ability. At only 5Ã¢ÂÂ8, heÃ¢ÂÂs significantly smaller than Ronaldo Ã¢ÂÂ who is excellent at storming to the far post to climb above short right-backs, as he memorably did against Michael Essien in the 2008 Champions League final. Rafael has actually coped well this season Ã¢ÂÂ heÃ¢ÂÂs won a respectable 54% of his aerial contests, and in recent matches against both Liverpool and Wigan, he was impressive in the air.
Nevertheless, a contest against Ronaldo is different matter altogether Ã¢ÂÂ and with United likely to be giving Real time on the opposite flank, Ronaldo stands a great chance of getting on the end of a far post cross.
Although Ferguson will instruct Rafael to remain in his right-back position, with Jones covering and Valencia playing a defensive-minded role, there may be one or two opportunities for the Brazilian fullback to break forward. His attacking play this season has also improved, and he combines particularly well with Valencia Ã¢ÂÂ they charged down the wing to great effect early on against Chelsea, creating UnitedÃ¢ÂÂs first two goals.
Rafael has also contributed a couple of assists himself in recent weeks. In the crucial win over Manchester City, he provided a low cross for Wayne RooneyÃ¢ÂÂs goal, and at the weekend he played an excellent through-ball for Robin van Persie.
DonÃ¢ÂÂt expect the Brazilian to pop up in the opposition third of the pitch too frequently Ã¢ÂÂ but in tight, tense contests like this one, a surprise presence in advanced positions can be crucial in getting the breakthrough.
In RafaelÃ¢ÂÂs previous Champions League test of this magnitude, he was dismissed for two unnecessary bookings when up against Bayern MunichÃ¢ÂÂs Franck Ribery. United lost the game from a dominant position Ã¢ÂÂ and Arjen RobbenÃ¢ÂÂs superb and decisive volley from a corner crept inside the post Rafael had earlier been stationed on. This time, the Brazilian has both the experience and form to make a positive contribution to UnitedÃ¢ÂÂs Champions League campaign.
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