It is the historic fixture of Alfredo Di Stefano's backheeled passing to Raymond Kopa, of Bill Foulkes silencing the Bernabeu, of Fernando Redondo bemusing Henning Berg, of David Beckham's unstoppable free-kick past a frozen Iker Casillas and a hat-trick from the Brazilian Ronaldo. Tomorrow, it is the turn of the Portuguese Ronaldo to try to add to this fixture's rich tradition. "It is the match the world is waiting for,'' said Jose Mourinho with typical understatement.
Real Madrid against Manchester United enjoys a global appeal partly for its relative rarity value. These two celebrated clubs have met only in four two-leg ties across nearly six decades. The fixture acquired additional lustre because of the significance: European Cup semi-finals in 1957 (Madrid winning 5-3 on aggregate) and 1968 (United 4-3 agg), Champions League quarter-finals in 2000 (Madrid 3-2 agg) and 2003 (Madrid 6-5 agg) and now the round of 16.
It is a fixture associated with memorable football. Three of the 31 goals came from Ronaldo in a remarkable hour at Old Trafford on April 23, 2003. His opening goal came after he smoothly evaded Rio Ferdinand, who looked anything but a pounds 30?million defender at that moment.
Ronaldo then lurked in the centre to meet Roberto Carlos' cross before a run through the middle climaxed with a shot past Fabien Barthez from 25 yards. Irresistible.
Ronaldo's prowess was in keeping with Real's buccaneering ethos, a recurring theme of this fixture. Vicente del Bosque turned up at Old Trafford almost without a defence but with an attack of Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Guti and Steve McManaman as well as Ronaldo.
Roberto Carlos and Michel Salgado were nominal full-backs, operating more like wingers at times.
Barring one stalemate on April 4, 2000, at the Bernabeu, the fixture is a showcase for creativity. "From the start, the crowd is treated to a sparkling display of football,'' intoned the commentator from British Pathe News as Kopa launched the mini-classic that was United 2, Real 2 on April 24, 1957. Kopa had taken an inspired pass from Di Stefano to score in the first leg on April 11, setting the tone for the series.
It is the fixture of iconic images, of George Best turning away from goal at Old Trafford on April 24, 1968, his white shorts muddied, his right arm aloft in celebration as Real players glanced at each other in frustration. Or three weeks later Manuel Velazquez running down the Bernabeu left, socks rolled down, causing havoc, playing one pass that totally foxed Shay Brennan.
Or Redondo spiriting the ball around Berg on April 19, 2000, racing on, collecting the ball and crossing for Raul to score. Or Beckham, his hair pulled back to reveal the fading scar inflicted by a flying boot, marching stony-faced along the touchline towards the bench at Old Trafford in 2003. What on earth was Sir Alex Ferguson doing?
It is the fixture that helped shape United's reputation for resilience in adversity. With United trailing in the May 15, 1968 Bernabeu semi-final, Matt Busby peppered his half-time team-talk with, "We're Manchester United, let's have a go at them''. David Sadler and Foulkes, a centre-half popping up at centre-forward, made it 3-3, 4-3 to United on aggregate.
What also encapsulated United's philosophy, arguably the principle of another age, was that Best was still trying to score in the last few seconds of the game, even though they were through to the Wembley final. At the final whistle, United fans ran on the pitch. Everyone knew what the European Cup meant to the club, to the players and Busby, who had rebuilt the team after the Munich air disaster. It was so fitting that Foulkes, one of the Munich survivors, should confirm United's place in the final.
United's determination was seen through the exertions of Beckham valiantly if vainfully in that Redondo game in 2000 when he dribbled past three defenders to score and then, rising from the bench three years later, striking a free-kick past Casillas, who did not even move. Beckham then poached a second, making it 4-3 to United but Real progressed 6-5 on aggregate.
Accentuating the intrigue at the end it almost seemed like Beckham was saying farewell to Old Trafford and preparing to join new team-mates at Real. Ferguson once observed he "would not sell a virus" to Madrid but he sold Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo to "that mob".
For all Ferguson's occasional fits of pique towards Castille, long-standing respect exists between Real and United. Madrilenos enthused about the prodigious Duncan Edwards in 1957 just as those at United like Bobby Charlton so admired Di Stefano.
The respect intensified when Real offered United support after Munich.
When Busby's side arrived in Madrid for that 1968 game, Real's president Santiago Bernabeu announced: "I want Manchester United greeted, treated and respected as the greatest club in the world. If we are beaten then we shall have lost to a great team.'' He talked of the clubs' kinship. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Madrid, some of the United players' wives were locking themselves in their hotel bathrooms to escape a lecherous bellboy.
Respect has largely ruled. Ronaldo was applauded off by the Stretford End following his dissecting of United's defence in 2003. Del Bosque put a consoling arm briefly around Ferguson as they walked towards the tunnel.
A famous fixture is not always sporting. "As the pace grows hotter, manners are forgotten by both teams and bad tempers mar the game,'' continued the man from Pathe News in 1957, sounding like an affronted teacher looking out of the staffroom window and spotting some playground scrap. When Manuel Torres fell injured, United players tried to carry him off so they could get on with the game. A surreal, unedifying tug of war briefly broke out as Real players pulled Torres back on to the pitch. "It is a pity that such bad behaviour on both sides should spoil the brilliant football,'' concluded the headmaster from Pathe.
Eleven years later and one reason for United's recovery in the Bernabeu was Nobby Stiles reducing the mobility of Amancio, Madrid's main source of inspiration. Real fans were enraged at the sight of the clattered Amancio lying on the pitch. Stiles was politely expressing concern to the referee that the Spaniard might somehow be injured. In 2003, Juan Sebastian Veron battered Claude Makelele, who almost snapped Nicky Butt in two with one challenge. This is a game of brutality but mostly beauty.