Rafael's Ronaldo reunion the key battle at the Bernabeu

ZonalMarking.net's Michael Cox uses FourFourTwo's StatsZone app – now FREE – to analyse the battle between Manchester United's former hero and one of their rising stars...

The 2012/13 campaign has widely been acclaimed as Rafael da Silva’s 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 United’s 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 – 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, Ronaldo’s game has developed significantly since his move to Real Madrid – he’s become even stronger, more prolific and is permanently used on the left flank – and Rafael will be in for a tricky evening in Madrid.

First, one important caveat – 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 isn’t afraid of compromising his own team shape to stop one particularly dangerous opponent, but the nature of Jones’ 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 Bale’s ability to dribble directly towards goal. Something similar against Ronaldo is likely.

Ultimately, however, Rafael needs to turn in a good individual display – Ronaldo stays extremely high up the pitch, so doubling up against him isn’t 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 Brazilian’s usual approach against opponents who drift inside is to stick to them very tightly. This was what he did against Everton’s Steven Pienaar at the weekend, and although the South African doesn’t offer anything close to Ronaldo’s 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 – not necessarily winning the ball, but forcing a backwards pass.

Rafael’s tendency to be drawn inside makes it imperative that Antonio Valencia tracks Fabio Coentrao into defensive positions – while Real have the ball, Valencia is likely to become an auxiliary right-back.

Another concern will be Rafael’s aerial ability. At only 5’8, he’s significantly smaller than Ronaldo – 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 – he’s 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 – 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 – they charged down the wing to great effect early on against Chelsea, creating United’s 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 Rooney’s goal, and at the weekend he played an excellent through-ball for Robin van Persie.

Don’t expect the Brazilian to pop up in the opposition third of the pitch too frequently – but in tight, tense contests like this one, a surprise presence in advanced positions can be crucial in getting the breakthrough.

In Rafael’s previous Champions League test of this magnitude, he was dismissed for two unnecessary bookings when up against Bayern Munich’s Franck Ribery. United lost the game from a dominant position – and Arjen Robben’s 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 United’s Champions League campaign.

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