Fingertips in Bernabeu ensure nervous evening at Old Trafford

Posted by Rob Train

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson predicted goals ahead of the Champions League clash between his side and that of his old Premier League sparring partner Jose Mourinho and goals there were, although not as many as might have been anticipated after a frantic opening 45 minutes. The eventual, hotly contested 1-1 tie tees up a return leg that UEFA can only dream of staging on a regular basis - cue the dusting off of the European Super League idea when all the usual suspects report for domestic trophy detail in May.

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Real set the tone early on with some liquid forward play. Angel di Maria, a lively presence on Real's right until his second half substitution, tested the water with a long-range drive minutes before Fabio Coentrao, cutting onto his right foot, drew a fingertip intervention from David de Gea. The former Atletico keeper, on his return to the Spanish capital, paid back a decent share of the faith invested in him by Ferguson throughout the game but what a different result it might have been had the Portuguese wingback's shot inched inside the Spaniard's far post.

As it transpired, the opening goal of the encounter came from the surprise inclusion in United's starting 11; Danny Welbeck. With Ferguson opting not to use Tom Cleverly the visitor's midfield looked a little lightweight on paper but the England international's speed was designed to unsettle Real's defensive plan, especially with both Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos one caution away from a second-leg ban. But it was the youngster's head that proved decisive as he latched on to Wayne Rooney's corner. It was far from the first time that Real has been caught out by a set piece this season and gave United exactly what it had come for - the all-important away goal. It was Welbeck's first in 27 games, and only his second in all competitions this season.

As it was written in the scriptures, Real's savior wore the number 7, and the faithful rejoiced. Ten minutes later Cristiano Ronaldo walked, if not quite on water than certainly in the air, to the extent that a helium test may have to be introduced purely to explain his ability to hang in the air for so long. Leaping to meet a Di Maria cross, Ronaldo completely took Patrice Evra out of the equation and thumped the ball past De Gea in a goal reminiscent of those in the 2008 Champions League final and the 2011 Copa del Rey final.

But despite the natural focus on the potency of Real and United's attacking flair, the first leg of this clash was as much about the goalkeepers as the forwards. Both De Gea and Lopez were thrust under the Bernabeu spotlight and both reacted well. Lopez denied Robin van Persie with a reflex tip on to the bar late on, seconds before the Dutchman inexplicably skewed a simple chance, by his own immaculate standards, allowing Alonso to clear off the line. De Gea, so often working under the persistent doubts of many observers, pulled off a spectacular if ungainly save with his feet and then held a Sami Khedira drive that fizzed off the turf as the final 10 minutes approached.

If parity was achieved, a result that neither side will complain about but would have widened the ever-twitching jaw of Ferguson more than his counterpart, as much credit belongs in the hands of the flak catchers at the back. Lopez deserves particular praise for his instincts in denying Van Persie just before the whistle when it seemed the predatory striker was destined to tip the tie in United's favor. His save, a carbon copy of De Gea's at the outset, justified Real's decision to grant him early release from purgatory at Sevilla.

So where does this leave the tie "that the world wanted to see," in the words of Mourinho? Wanting to see another 90 minutes, is the simple answer. And for the neutral, another half an hour after that wouldn't be a bad thing. Real's coach said after the game that the tie is perfectly poised, 50-50. It is maybe, just maybe, slightly leaning to toward Real in view of the probability that De Gea will be beaten again at Old Trafford. In the group stage Real did not fail to score in any of its matches, home or away. United was beaten by CFR Cluj at home and Galatasaray away without hitting the back of the net. In all its matches, Ferguson's team managed to beat only Braga by more than a single goal.

United has failed to progress in only two of 19 European Cup ties when unbeaten in the first leg. In a match where nerves will play their part as much as skill - United players have expressed their hope that Ronaldo will be somehow overwhelmed with emotion at Old Trafford - Real's quest for the Decima, its holy grail, and United's quest to regain the title it last won in 2008, hangs by an equally thin thread.

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