Well, what a 90 minutes that was.
"The match the world is waiting for," as it was billed by some, including the managers, was certainly up there as far as top-drawer matches go. Prematch drama, end-to-end action, goals, debatable decisions, misses, romance and a few controversies thrown in, too. It certainly left the lips being licked for the second leg at Old Trafford March 5. The match the world is waiting for, Part II.
-- Mourinho blames Ramos for Welbeck goal
So much was crammed into 90 minutes of football, and so well was it summed up and analysed by Rob Train in Wednesday's Madrid article, that it has left me with a desire to rattle through numerous pointers from the match that caught my attention, rather than focus on one or two issues from the match. Marca, the Spanish sports newspaper, writes pages and pages of Madrid news on a daily basis when often it seems like a task to fill those column inches. Not this week, not after that.
(1) Mourinho told the gathered media postmatch the tie is firmly in the balance -- 50/50. The master of mind games, especially when the cameras are in front of him, Mourinho -- chasing a third European crown that would save a disastrous year, very possibly his final year, at the helm -- is firmly in "game mode" not just for the 90 minutes, but from the first news conference until the postmatch news conference. The whole event is the game to him, not just the on-the-field activities.
For my money, however, the "Special One" is telling it as it is: It really is as close as that. United got a vital away goal and that should normally send the away side back to home soil as favourites. It probably does this time, just. Although the vast majority of the 22 men who took the pitch at the Bernabeu will take to the pitch in Manchester, the game will be completely different. Madrid's strength is its counter-attack -- it should favour them away. It should make for an interesting chess game for the return leg between the managers.
In all honesty, it could suit United to set up the same way, but it's unlikely they'll do that at home -- not a club of their stature. In all honesty, it leaves me pretty clueless as to how the second leg will go, and it should be a cracking match because of it.
(2) Ronaldo. You can't get away from talking about him, especially this game. His header -- what a header. I'm not a big fan of the Messi-Ronaldo comparisons but it's needed for this one. There's not much Messi cannot do that others can, but Ronaldo's leaping, towering header is one. I'm not sure many in world football can achieve that. The timing -- absolutely perfect, from the start of the jump, to the pause mid-air, to the power and the execution. While on first sight it may not have the beauty of a powerful run, taking on three men and nestling the ball into the bottom corner, but the skill and technique levels are on a par. Superb.
What of his performance on the whole? Average, for my money. Average for Ronaldo, anyway. Did the romance of playing against his former club get to him? He said so after the match. It usually goes one way or the other in that former players have blinding games against their former clubs or they struggle to have an impact. For me, Ronaldo was not at the very top levels of his game because of his relationship with United, whether he will sort that out for the return leg, where no doubt the United fans will send his name ringing around the stadium, remains to be seen.
(3) The goalkeepers. Not bad, at both ends. David De Gea, returning to his hometown, certainly looked at home. Questioned in the Premier League for some of his performance, the former Atletico Madrid man had one of the best performances since making the move to England. His shot-stopping abilities were never in doubt, but against Madrid he did not get the usual rough-and-tumble approach in the box. He made good saves throughout and distributed the ball well -- something that will probably catch the eye of Madrid, and possibly Barcelona, if things don't work out at United.
Diego Lopez also excelled for Madrid, dispelling any fears that he would be a weak link in the tie, and indeed for the remainder of his spell as first-choice goalkeeper. He provided crucial saves, saves arguably more difficult than those of his opposite number. In the first half, denying Danny Welbeck a second goal, and in the second half producing a superb save to tip a Robin van Persie effort into the bar and also getting his fingertips to another effort from the Dutchman in added time.
(4) The set-piece problems just won't go away for Madrid. Sir Alex Ferguson knew about those problems going into the game, and he'll certainly look to exploit them in the second leg. United's goal, of course, came from one such set piece. Sergio Ramos was marking Welbeck but let him go, and was simply overpowered by the United forward -- not something you often see against the Spanish international. Angel di Maria was also out of position for the kick. With the season where it is and with Mourinho expected to depart for pastures new come the summer, I think Madridistas may just have to deal with their problematic defending of set pieces and try to outscore their visitors.
(5) The officials, led by referee Felix Brych. Some strange decisions for both teams throughout the match. First off, United's corner should not have been a corner. The final touch came off Shinji Kagawa. Saying that, I only cottoned on to this from a replay and didn't get a hint of that from real play, so it must have been extremely tricky for the officials to spot it. That said, the officials behind the goal are there for a reason, and they could have picked up on it.
On the flip side, Raphael Varane was a lucky boy not to get his marching orders for a trip on Patrice Evra in the second half. The Frenchman allowed his countryman to get goal-side of him and seemingly hauled him down without playing the ball, but the referee did not even award a free-kick to the Premier League leaders. Finally, there was controversy over Phil Jones's challenge on di Maria in the first half. Jones had his arm out and the referee could have easily given a penalty, however soft it may have seemed. Maybe the Argentine's reputation went before him.
(6) An un-classic Clasico? Madrid has two matches against Barcelona in the week before the return trip to Old Trafford. First, they meet in the second leg of the Copa del Rey at the Camp Nou and just four days later the Catalans make the trip to the Bernabeu for the Liga match.
Usually, these games would be huge, crucial in the season, but for a change they'll probably play second fiddle to the Champions League. My guess is a strong side for the Cup match, with Madrid still in with a shout of progressing, and a weakened team for the league match, with Los Blancos having long since thrown in the towel on that. A move to a 4 p.m. kickoff on a Saturday already suggests that.
(7) The fans. A big, noisy following from Manchester, but a special mention to the Madrid fans, who often get a raw deal or being quiet at home (as is the case with United in England). Not for the noise, although the atmosphere was better than usual, but for the reception given to a legend of the game in Ryan Giggs. The Welshman came on in the second half, and his experience helped United's cause, but his introduction brought a great reception from the home fans -- a rarity, but welcomed.
Talking points, many of which will be debatable. Have your say in the comments box or follow me on Twitter @nicholasrigg. One thing we can all agree on: Bring on the second leg.
Well, what a 90 minutes that was.