The biggest match. The one that should have been a final. The hype, the build up. Cristiano Ronaldo taking on his old club, Jose Mourinho versus Sir Alex Ferguson.
It would be fair to say the lead up to this game has been bigger than any other. The opinions, the predictions and the lauding of Manchester United’s famous former number 7 all came to a head on Wednesday night, as Sir Alex Ferguson’s men along with a strong vocal travelling support, visited for the Bernabeu for the first leg of their Champion’s League tie in the knockout stages. The clash had been built up in hyperbolic proportions, with the anticipation reaching new levels, many spent the day waiting anxiously for kick off to come around. For both neutrals and fans alike, it was agreed that this was a match not to be missed.
For the trip, Sir Alex started with David De Gea in goal, with Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans in front of him. At left back sat Patrice Evra, with Rafael Da Silva on the right. In midfield, Phil Jones and Michael Carrick were paired with Welbeck and Kagawa joining them in a narrower set up. Up front, stood Wayne Rooney, who ended up out wide, and Robin Van Persie.
The opening exchanges looked ominous for the visitors. Within a matter of minutes, Madrid were threatening the United goal, passing quickly and getting in a number of attempts. Indeed, much of the half way played out in such a manner, with Madrid getting forward quickly, passing well to attempt to cut open the United defence and open the scoring. By contrast, United sat deeper, trying to absorb the pressure and looked to catch the home side on the counter attack, hoping to exploit weaknesses in their back line via quick breaks and counter attacks.
With only 6 minutes on the clock, David De Gea was called into action, Coentrao getting a shot away that came off the post. Replays showed De Gea actually touched the ball onto the post, in a shot that made it’s way through players before the Spaniard got a chance to see it. With United relying on quick breakaways, much of their early play was direct, getting the ball forward, often trying to find Kagawa, although the midfielder found his efforts unfruitful.
With just under 20 minutes played, and United finding their chances in the Madrid half limited, a corner was won, after De Gea pumped the ball forward, with Van Persie playing it to Kagawa, who subsequently won the set piece. Rooney swung in the corner, Danny Welbeck broke away from Ramos and while leaning back, headed at goal, the ball nestled in the ‘keepers left corner. 0-1 to United, perhaps to the surprise of many.
With the United faithful in good voice, Real Madrid came forward again. Di Maria forced De Gea into a low save as the hosts looked to exploit the left side, with Rafael constantly under pressure from Ronaldo, Ozil and Di Maria. Indeed, Di Maria collected the ball down the left and played in a cross, as Ronaldo leaped in the air, and almost seemed suspended in air as he met Di Maria’s delivery and powerfully headed home, leaving De Gea with no chance. 1-1 and all to play fort
United nearly took the lead again, when Van Persie played a ball in that was met by Welbeck, only to see his effort narrowly miss. The rest of the half saw United continue to sit deep as Madrid looked to break them down. However, despite the pressure, the sides went in all square at half time.
The second half saw the visitors attempt to hold on to the ball more, taking on a more positive approach. With 10 minutes played, Evra looked as though he had broken away, but was brought down by Varane, the referee chose not to award the foul, to the bewilderment of many. Madrid were still threatening as they got forward, although their play was not as wide as it had been. With just over an hour played and the home side were nearly up, as Khedira found Coentrao at the far post, only for De Gea to get across in time and keep out the effort with his feet.
Soon after, Giggs cam on to replace Kagawa, met with a respectful round of applause from the home fans. Much like the first half, Madrid enjoyed a period of possession, it looked as though once again, United would be under strain. However, suddenly a quick break as Van Persie received the ball from Rooney, the resulting shot was saved at the near post onto the bar. Soon after, a golden opportunity, as Van Persie was left onside, the ball in the air to be volleyed in the box, only for the Dutchman to miss-hit it beyond the goalkeeper, the ball slow enough for Alonso to recover and prevent the lead being taken.
With both sides getting chances, more changes were made. Valencia replaced a cramp-ridden Welbeck and with under 10 minutes remaining, Rooney was taken off for Anderson as Sir Alex looked to shore up the midfield.
There was time for Ronaldo to cause everyone a moment to fall silent, as he ambitious free kick dipped threateningly, with De Gea stood still, only for the ball to fall on to the roof of the net.
And so it remained one apiece, both sides with their chances to win the game, Sir Alex’s men passed the first test, taking an away goal back to Old Trafford after a first leg stalemate. In a game where either side could have walked away with the win, fans and players alike will likely be pleased with the effort, knowing all is there to play for when the sides meet again in 3 weeks. As Sir Alex and Ronaldo embraced on the sidelines and the United faithful continued to sing as the crowds emptied the stadium, pundits fawned over what was considered a fine game of football.
With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) David De Gea’s quality getting recognition
As a graduate of Atletico Madrid, it must have been quite an occasion for De Gea to be starting at the Bernabeu. Indeed, it was on this stage that critics appeared to take note of what he is capable of as his heroics saved his side on a number of occasions. He had the occasional moment, particularly with crosses, but the Spaniard was assured and confident on a night when United needed it most.
His hands were safe, his saves incredible. Most notable was Coentrao’s low effort that he tipped onto the post, as well as his audacious save with his feet from him after Khedira’s cross. It was a superb performance from a player who has been under the spotlight since he joined, and especially in recent weeks. When Jamie Redknapp explained he had been “slaughtered” recently (by him), and now had impressed everyone, it felt as though critics caught a glimpse as to why there is faith in him and the potential as to what he might be a few years down the line.
2) Danny Welbeck silencing those who questioned him
There were a few raised eyebrows with United’s decision not to include any wingers in the starting line up, and even more so when it was revealed that Welbeck would be starting. The young Englishman has faced some criticism lately, in part due to a lack of goals and what has been seen as an ineffective stint on the wing. However, by the time he was substituted for Valencia, those that had doubted had been left firmly corrected, as the striker put in one of the best performances of the night. He worked tirelessly for the team, running all game showing great pace and causing the Madrid back line more than a few problems. Of all those who started, it was he who deserved the goal, rising well at an awkward position to head home and give his side a surprise lead.
A bright, positive performance in which cramp was his only limitation.
3) Phil Jones doing his defensive duties
From marking Fellaini to supporting the back four and keeping an eye on Ronaldo, Phil Jones found himself with something of a difficulty spike in this game. Along with Welbeck and De Gea, I believe he was the best player for United, in what was a good performance all round for the rest of the side. The young defender, taking place in midfield with Carrick on this occasion, did all he could to support the defence all evening. Charged with keeping Ronaldo under control, he did his best, throwing in strong tackles and battling effectively. He did not get forward much, perhaps because United spent much of their time in their own half, but he showed great discipline as he performed his defensive duties.
His most important contribution came late in the game when Ronaldo received the ball in the box, only for Jones to keep up and tackle him, causing a bit of a scramble before getting the ball away. With Rafael under intense pressure on the right, he covered well for him as he went forward. A strong shift overall.
On the subject of Rafael, many will point out that this was not his best night, and that would be true. However, given the task at hand in facing Ronaldo, Di Maria and Ozil, and the unpredictable nature in which they came forward, it was always going to be a tough task. In the first half, he seemed out of his depth, although in the second, when Madrid slowed the tempo and width was not used so much, he settled and became more effective, he grew in confidence and made good contributions to the defensive effort, on a night when Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans looked strong and assured. With the constant threat of Ronaldo waiting to pounce, a strong effort was made to contain or limit his potential, and it worked to an extent. The Portuguese winger was always going to find opportunities, but a well organised back line, with Jones reinforcing proved to be an effective solution.
A final note on the defence concerns Evra and his defending when Ronaldo scored. One might argue that he should have made a stronger effort to stop Ronaldo scoring. However, when one sees the height with which Ronaldo jumped and how early he took the leap to meet the header, it becomes harder to assign blame, over what was an impressive piece of athleticism.
4) Sat too deep in a midfield mismatch
One observation from the evening was that United arguably could have done better to relieve the pressure on themselves. Although Carrick and Jones did well to aid the defence, when faced with the midfield of Alonso, Khedira and Ozil as well as the wingers, one could tell it was going to be a long night. It was expected that the home side would come racing out of the gates, and it was understandable that United sat deep and invited the pressure, looking to exploit moments to catch them on the break.
However, it was not a strategy that could continue all game, as eventually the defences would likely be broken and a breakthrough made.
Despite the apparent domination in midfield, one cannot help but feel that United could have made life easier for themselves, particularly in the second half. passes went astray fairly often, with the hard-working Rooney particularly at fault for wayward passing. With more time on the ball in the second half, some of the threats that came their way could have been dampened or even avoided. It is a strategy that is not likely to be repeated quite as much on the return to Old Trafford, where a different style of game could be played.
Of course sitting as deep as they did had consequences further up the field. Kagawa was stifled during his time on the pitch, unable to make an impact centrally as he was met with a wall of defence whenever the ball came his way.
5) Strange refereeing and a game that could have been won
In a game that was entertaining for both neutral observers and hardened fans, one aspect that did disappoint was the standard of refereeing. Although some decisions that went against United were fair, it would be reasonable to say the same thing did not occur the other way. Varane most certainly should have been called back for his foul on Evra, at which point a red card could have been issued as it would have been a professional foul, for example. On a night when similar fouls were committed, in fact more so from the home side, it seemed odd that they came away with no yellow cards, yet United ended up with 3.
Of course, I am not suggesting no cautions were deserved at all. Van Persie, despite the ridiculous theatrics of Ramos, was perhaps careless as he was given a yellow card with his hand in the fact of the defender as they challenged for an aerial ball, with Valencia being cautioned for a similar foul later on. The final odd decision came as United won a corner with seconds left and as it was lined up, the final whistle blown. Of course, the referee is within his right to call time as he sees fit, but it is unusual when a corner is about to be taken. Perhaps he felt it took too long.
Finally, many, including myself, are perfectly satisfied to come away with an away goal from the Bernabeu in a well-earned 1-1 draw. However, there is the lingering thought that United could have come away with the victory. This was most evident when Van Persie failed to connect properly with a ball he was about to volley and Alonso recovered the ball as it was about to trickle in. The game really could have gone either way, with Madrid spending much of the game on the front foot and United looking dangerous as they broke free. The likes of Giggs brought some reassurance to the midfield later on, but the threat always remained.
It will be interesting to see how the game is played in 3 weeks, but one wonders if fans may look back on the missed chances to take a win in the first leg. Whatever one’s thoughts on the matter, there were plenty of positive to take from what was a mature and solid team showing, with some individual bright spots to point out. After Wednesday night’s game, fans have reason to be optimistic going into the home leg.