De Gea heroics keep United tie on a knife edge

Posted by Mark Payne

Referee Felix Brych ended this 1-1 draw between Real Madrid and Manchester United in the 93rd minute and was immediately surrounded by men in red shirts. United had just been awarded a corner and the chance for another improbable, trademark late goal had been snatched away from them. Despite Madrid putting in the slightly stronger showing in this first leg, a United victory would not have been undeserved.

- Fergie: Facing us was tough for Ronaldo

United have had a torrid time against Spanish opposition in recent years, particularly in Spain, where the record before Wednesday night read: two wins, eight draws and 10 losses. Athletic Bilbao put them to the sword in last year's Europa League and there was the small matter of two Champions League final defeats to Barcelona. This was a distinct improvement on those performances and the team from Manchester leaves Madrid having secured a result many thought beyond it.

As predicted by some, Fergie pulled several rabbits out of the hat with his team selection. Nemanja Vidic, presumably not fit enough for two games in close proximity, was replaced by Johnny Evans in a defence that was shielded by Phil Jones and Michael Carrick. It was a lineup that encouraged concentrated passing and relied upon the speed and industry of the players further up the field.

The opening exchanges were slick and incisive. Madrid had the first real chance of the match, Fabio Coentrao slapping a shot at the United goal which was turned onto the inside of the post with the lightest of touches from David de Gea. It was the first of many saves from the goalkeeper, who put in the kind of performance you can only admire. He kept United in this tie and if they are to progress in this competition, he will deserve a lot of the credit.

De Gea can tuck his critics up in bed tonight. He was absolutely superb and made a series of fantastic saves with both hands and feet, using any body part he could to keep Madrid at bay.

United's defenders were predicted to have a busy night and that was certainly the case. There were scrambled clearances and desperate lunges but most of the defending was heroic. In the midst of this were magnificent performances from Rio Ferdinand and Evans. Rafael had a tougher time and Mesut Ozil turned him inside out on more than one occasion.

United opted for a front pack of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa. Despite the bloodletting credentials of that front line, its brief was to be United's first line of defence. Madrid are at their most dangerous as a counterattacking force and United's front men were instructed to harry any Madrid player in possession.

The tactics were gleefully Ferguson-esque. In order to play defensively, he ordered his most attacking players to do the work. The assumption being that when a chance came, one of them would presumably take it. After 20 minutes, it worked.

A left-sided corner was beautifully delivered by Wayne Rooney and the backpedaling Danny Welbeck glanced his header into the corner. The traveling fans were cock-a-hoop. To be able to come to this footballing cathedral is one thing. To see one of your club's youth team products put your side in front is as good as it gets. The United faithful outsang the other 100,000 fans in attendance comfortably. Then Cristiano Ronaldo struck.

This game was never going to pass without the former United player making an impression. United have been suspect defending crosses this year and that was how they conceded again here. To be fair, he could live for 1,000 years but Patrice Evra will never outjump Ronaldo. The Madrid man planted a header full of protein into the corner from Angel Di Maria's cross. The technique and execution were flawless. He is simply the best.

As Fergie noted after the game: "What a header, unbelievable. You can't stop that, he springs and holds himself in the air."

Madrid were sumptuous in the first half. United were definitely still in it after 45 minutes, but that almost felt like an achievement. Despite this, Jose Mourinho looked absolutely miserable on the sidelines. He came out of the dressing room five minutes before any of his players after halftime; it appears they can't stand each other's company. United's players emerged full of vigour, perhaps warmed by the gentle caress of a hairdryer. Their defending grew in authority and some dangerous chances were fashioned on the breakaway.

Welbeck was proving to be United's most mobile attacker and Madrid's substitute keeper Diego Lopez will be sick of the sight of him. Most of the play of Rooney and van Persie fell under the banner of selfless teamwork. However, when van Persie did get a look in he hit the bar and then had a shot cleared off the line.

Madrid were favourites before this game, nobody made a secret of it. Now they won't be feeling so confident. At Old Trafford on March 3 these two teams will meet again. This formal introduction tonight proved that both teams have the players to punish even the slightest of mistakes. When they meet again, both sides will be going for the kill.

Follow Mark on www.twitter.com/markjpayne

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