VIDEO: SUN JOURNALIST JAKE RYAN JOINED OUR COMPETITION WINNERS TO MEET — AND PLAY AGAINST — REAL MADRID STAR MICHAEL ESSIEN
As Michael Essien powered towards me with the ball at his feet, I somehow managed to stretch out a leg and poke it away from him.
Laughing as he jogs back to his starting position, he gives me a high five and I have to pinch myself. I’m training at Real Madrid.
Ahead of the Spanish champions’ Champions League tie against Manchester United, I headed over to their state-of-the-art Valdebabas training centre to check on the preparations.
And joining me were a lucky few competition winners from around Europe, including Englishmen James West and Richard Field, who both won places through a Sun Online promotion.
Builder James, 36, of Tunbridge Wells in Kent, said: “It stood out straight away on the online competitions — playing with Real Madrid and coming over here.
“I never in a million years thought we were going to win it, even when The Sun phoned up I thought I was being wound up by my mates!”
We arrived by coach at the impressive 22,000sqm complex, just outside Madrid city, which for much of the week is home to Jose Mourinho and Los Blancos.
The site looks like a light-security prison from the outside with a perimeter road and private security team on constant patrol.
Once inside the main building and past the security checks, I peered in to the pristine gym, medical room, and swimming centre with several cold, hot, plunge and wave pools.
There is also a special first team players’ lounge which looks out to the first team training pitch, with sofas and staff on hand to wait on any family members.
Connecting corridors have a strong smell of disinfectant, giving a hospital-like feel to the place and there is a long line of changing rooms for all Real’s age groups.
Each year a player stays on at the academy they move up the spine of changing rooms and a little closer to the first team dressing room – the hardest to get into.
But the reason we’re all here is to train with Real players on one of Valdebabas’ 13 practice pitches – so all kitted up we head outside into the Spanish sun.
Leading out my team in white home shirts, against the away strip in blue, the music boomed out the sound system and our arrival was announced.
Real coaches Jaime and Javier directed the proceedings while first teamers Michael Essien, Jose Maria Callejon, Alvaro Morata and Antonio Adan joined in with the drills.
I’ve been tasked with trying to take on Essien, which I manage once – though more by completely avoiding him rather than through any footballing talent.
Then he has to take me on and first time round, the Ghanaian midfielder does a lightning-quick shimmy as I fall backwards to much hilarity among the spectators.
But I get another crack, and with an outstretched foot manage to dispossess him – it feels like a victory.
Stopping for a break, I ask Essien whether he’s enjoying life at the Bernabeu, where he is on a year-long loan from Chelsea.
He said: “I am because in La Liga teams want to play football and pass the ball around.
“It makes it more fun to play, unlike in England where some teams don’t look to play and just want to fight.”
Fair enough, but thankfully for the midfielder he ends up on my side in the final showdown game – because I’m not holding back.
With some of my long-forgotten ‘skills’ I trundle round a couple of men in the opening minutes, including comp winner James, and roll it through to Essien.
Showing why he has become a regular feature in Mourinho’s starting line-up – he beats four men with two or three touches and toe-pokes home for his first of four strikes.
Social worker Richard, 48, from Battersea in London, still could not believe he had been given the chance to play alongside the Real players.
He said: “Meeting and talking to players from the Real Madrid team and getting coached by top professionals as well – it’s been top-notch.
“And all because I was on The Sun’s competition email list.”
Commenting on his rock-at-the-back performance, he joked: “You know what they say, ‘attack for show, defend for dough’.”
I end up on the winning side but Sun Online winner James is declared the day’s top player for a spectacular scissor-kick.
As the ball floated in from the right side, he acrobatically threw himself into the air and clinically finished to receive resounding applause from the onlookers.
West said: “It’s like a dream come true – it still feels like a bit surreal anyway, playing with the professional players and getting the kit.
“The players have all been really down-to-earth and great to chat to – really friendly.
“And to win it with the signed shirt it’s just been unbelievable – you feel like you’re going to wake up.”
After the match, I catch up with Essien and ask him who he reckons is going to come through the long-awaited second-round Champions League tie against Manchester United.
He said: “It’s going to be very tough one but hopefully playing the first leg at home will give us an advantage.
“The Champions League means a lot and as a footballer you dream of winning it.
“I managed to do it with Chelsea last season and this season I’m going to do my best to win it with Real Madrid.”
Even though I’m not Champions League-tied, I wasn’t offered the playing contract I was hoping for. I can’t think why..
So it was back on the plane to windswept, rainy Blighty.