Xabi Alonso knows what it is like to face Manchester United at Old Trafford. He did it four times with Liverpool. Less than a week before the round of 16 second leg of the of the continent’s showpiece competition, the Whites’ midfielder was the main story in Champions Matchday, the official magazine of the UEFA Champions League. 'The strategic controller of the Real Madrid midfield', as he is called in the publication, analysed the match against the English team: "From the perspective of the supporters and because of the history of both clubs, this tie is pure football. The tenth European title shouldn’t turn into an obsession, because that doesn’t work well for you, but it’s an important objective". He also spoke of verticality and his team’s attacking style: "We don’t want to keep possession for the sake of keeping possession, and we always have a clear objective, which is reaching the box".
How does playing for Real Madrid CF differ from the other teams you’ve played for?
In attack we have players that surpass those at my other clubs. Every attacking player here can create a goalscoring chance at any time.
How do you rate your own performances so far this season?
I always link that to our collective performance. That’s what interests me: the team. When I see that things could be better, it means I could play better as well.
What would you say are José Mourinho’s main qualities as a coach?
Above all I am struck by his ability to empathise with and reach his players, which is a hard thing to do. When you see a group in front of you that support you, believe in the ideas you are transmitting … that’s what a leader does. And our coach is a leader like that. For me, he is one of the best coaches.
How does Mourinho influence your game?
Apart from his knowledge of the game, he masters many elements in terms of tactical variations within each match. Above all, in the build-up to games, he talks about “teaching yourself”, how psychologically you can prepare yourself to be able to play any game. That is very important – especially for us where it’s practically an obligation to win every game we compete in.
Describe your role in the team.
My position is important. A central midfielder is always involved, helping team-mates, linking defence and attack. A central midfielder can never shy away, and has to be focused and play at a consistent level over the 90 minutes. You can’t lose concentration. A midfielder should touch the ball as little as possible, he should circulate it from one place to the next, from defence to attack and from left to right.
How important is it for players like you to have tactical intelligence?
Very important. It’s imperative to know how to approach games tactically because different variations can bring a certain imbalance. The fewer of those we suffer, and the more we control a game, the more likelywe are to win.
What is the first thing that goes through your mind when you receive the ball?
Normally I already have an idea about where I want to put the ball before I receive it. You need to anticipate a situation, look for an unmarked team-mate or a space you can use to the team’s advantage. You try to read the game in advance because at the highest level the one thing you don’t have is time.
How do you measure your performances after the whistle?
I don’t have a method – it’s an unconscious thing. I know perfectly well when I can be happy about the game I’ve just played, and when I could have played better.
What is Cristiano Ronaldo like to play alongside?
He is the most ambitious player I have met, with the hunger and desire to score in every game. He is impressive in terms of his athletic qualities and his technical abilities. He is a complete player: he has a great shot; he knows how to put his opponent off balance in one-on-one situations; he’s great at finding space and he has great timing.
What are the key differences between Madrid’s style and the way Spain play?
At Madrid we are a team of very quick changes, with deep [vertical] passing that creates many chances. We don’t want to keep possession for the sake of keeping possession, and we always have a clear objective, which is reaching the box. That works well with the players we have in attack, who are good at putting opponents off balance and finding the goal. With the national team it’s different: our football is more about playing the ball around until we create a chance.
How big a deal is it for you personally to face Manchester United FC?
From the perspective of the supporters and because of the history of both clubs, this tie is pure football. For Cristiano, who played at United for many years, it is a bit more special. But it is special for me, too. When I was at Liverpool, games against United were very intense and important because of the rivalry between the clubs.
You won the UEFA Champions League with Liverpool FC. How does it feel to win this competition?
It’s incredible. It was my first big title and the way it happened made it even more special. It was so unexpected because Liverpool weren’t favourites. The way that final unfolded: the excitement, the euphoria, everything united in one match of 120 minutes. I can hardly put it into words.
What would it mean to you and the club to win the décima?
It shouldn’t turn into an obsession, because that doesn’t work well for you, but it’s an important objective. We know it’s been a number of years since Madrid last won the European Cup, but it isn’t an easy competition to win, because we are competing against the top clubs in Europe.