Manchester United secured a valuable away goal in the first leg of their Champions League tie with Spanish giants Real Madrid, sharing the spoils 1-1.
Whilst my usual match reaction pieces are written at the end of a game that has a definite outcome and therefore consequence, this one comes at half time in a tie that both teams will feel shall go their way.
United started De Gea in goal with Evra, Evans, Ferdinand and Rafael in front of him. Vidic failed to make either the starting XI or the bench after Sir Alex stated it was too much to ask for him to play again after having played the last game of the weekend against Everton on Sunday afternoon. It was certainly a good idea not to risk him given he is still coming back from a serious knee injury, and provided another chance for Ferguson to not-so-subtly remind the Premier League that scheduling United for last thing Sunday was unhelpful in the least, especially given the concessions handed out to Madrid in La Liga.
Phil Jones and Michael Carrick sat deep, whilst Rooney and Kagawa played wider and slightly in front of them, with Welbeck and van Persie higher again. Perhaps hoping for the same success he had at shutting down Gareth Bale against Spurs recently, Jones shaded towards Ronaldo’s side from the off, and with the exception of a possible Madrid penalty claim, was one of the best players on the pitch throughout the 90 minutes.
Real Madrid started the game brightly, predictably looking for width, and finding some thanks to the narrow set up of the men from Manchester. Ronaldo had early success picking on Rafael, whilst Sergio Ramos disgraced himself in unsurprising fashion by flailing around on the ground like a sack of shit after van Persie challenged him in the air. Robin received a yellow card from rent-a-ref Felix Brych after 5 minutes, one of many decisions the German got wrong.
Madrid’s first real chances came to Fabio Coentrao who curled a low shot towards De Gea’s lefthand post. With lightning quick reactions, Dave brushed the ball onto the post with the slightest touch of his fingertips, saving what would have been a demoralising early goal. It really is difficult to illustrate just how good this save was in real time, through a crowd of players, coming from the other side of the goal. This is the kind of talent that sets De Gea apart from any other keeper of his age, and bodes well the the goals conceded stat of both United and Spain in years to come.
United took the lead in fairytale fashion soon afterwards as Danny Welbeck embarrassed Ramos from a corner, beating him back to a ball crossed in behind him and heading it into the bottom righthand corner of Madrid’s goal. A sweet moment of unbridled joy for Welbeck, and gushing pride for those that have watched him come through the ranks, complete with trademark ‘Manc Swagger’ and the skill to back it up.
However, Madrid levelled 10 minutes later as an inch-perfect cross from the left by Di Maria connected with a salmon-like leap from Ronaldo who headed it into the bottom corner of De Gea’s net. Although i’m sure Evra could have done much better – by actually attempting to challenge for the cross for instance – i’m not sure anyone could have stopped Ronaldo tucking that ball away. As he headed the ball, his knee was at the height of Evra’s head, an astonishing leap from one of the worlds best players.
Ronaldo’s celebration was muted as a gesture of respect for the time he spent at United – a move that will further endere him to the home fans when he returns to Old Trafford in early March.
Madrid seemed enthused by their equaliser, and began to exert more and more pressure up until half time, picking on the hapless Rafael time and time again, seeming to find much more joy sending the ball wide, then attempting to pass through Carrick and Jones in midfield.
Having scored already, Welbeck clearly felt in the mood as he could have restored United’s lead a few minutes later as he poked a shot wide of the goal in the face on an on-rushing Lopez.
Kagawa had looked bright early on, testing Real’s offside trap on several occasions, but failed to have the kind of impact Sir Alex will have wanted. Rooney too was largely ineffective, frequently drifting inside and failing to provide help to Rafael.
The game settled slightly after half time as both teams took stock of their progress, perhaps mindful not to expose themselves with three quarters of the tie still to play.
Shortly after the hour mark Ferguson brought on Giggs for Kawaga, restoring some of the width the Red’s were lacking prior to the Welshman’s introduction.
Real continued to look to exploit United’s weaknesses though, leading to another chance for Coentrao which De Gea acrobatically kicked away from goal – not quite how Eric Steele might be teaching him, but did the job.
Madrid escaped punishment for their profligacy moments later as Evra, on a rare venture forward, was brought down from behind by last man Raphael Varane. A red card should have followed, but instead the incident was added to Brych’s catalogue of blunders.
De Gea would save United once more late on, clutching a powerful drive from Sami Khedira but not before Van Persie had two decent opportunities to put United back in front. The first saw him bear down on goal and unleash a wicked drive that Lopez only just managed to push onto the post, then he found himself unexpectedly onside in Madrid’s box but could only scuff his shot past the keeper, leaving Alonso time to race back and clear if off the line.
The game ended 1-1, after a corner had been awarded for United, but before they could take it – stupid again from Brych.
Both managers remarked that the tie was still 50/50 in their post match interviews, yet both will have reason to privately believe his side will progress at the expense of his opponents. United looked shakey wide left and right at the back, and have David De Gea to credit for still being in the tie, yet Real looked ordinary from corners, and had van Persie have had his shooting boots on, could well have lost the game instead of drawing it.
With a mouth-watering 90+ mins ahead in 3 weeks time, United will hope that the home advantage of a rocking Old Trafford will be enough to see them over the line and into the next round of this years Champions League.