The UEFA Champions League final isn't until May 25. But when Real Madrid travels to Old Trafford to meet Manchester United on Tuesday, it doesn't feel like simply the second leg of a round-of-16 series that the teams enter tied 1-1.
Not with Cristiano Ronaldo making his first return to the club with which he spent six seasons before moving to the Spanish capital in 2009. Not with 39-year-old Ryan Giggs set to make what will be his 1,000th career first-team appearance among Manchester United (931 games), Wales (64) and Great Britain (four).
Real Madrid will get the chance to play spoiler again. At home in Spain, two straight defeats of Barcelona in the Copa del Rey and La Liga have taken the steam out of the Catalan team's cruise toward a fourth league title in five years.
Manchester United's fifth Premier League crown in seven years is a formality with two months to play. But that also places even more of a premium on focusing resources on Europe, where Manchester coach Alex Ferguson has lost twice in the final since last winning the trophy in 2008.
- Craig Stouffer