Danny Welbeck’s header gave Manchester United a priceless away goal to take back to Old Trafford for the second leg of their blockbuster Round of 16 UEFA Champions League tie with Real Madrid on Wednesday.
Former United star Cristiano Ronaldo equalized for the home side with a similarly well-taken header just 10 minutes later, but the Spanish giants were unable to find a winner.
Jose Mourinho’s team had significantly more attempts on goal than the visitors, but it was actually Sir Alex Ferguson’s men that carved out the more clear-cut opportunities.
“The game has come at a good time for us. We’re doing well in the Premier League and we come to Madrid in good form,” Ferguson told the press before the game. “It’s a fantastic challenge to come here and play Real Madrid.”
While Madrid are struggling domestically, and currently sit 16 points behind La Liga leaders Barcelona, United are 12 points clear atop the Premier League.
Real Madrid crushed Sevilla 4–1 in La Liga last Saturday night with an outstanding Ronaldo scoring a hat-trick, so the team had some good momentum for this encounter.
Mourinho declared, “It’s always a privilege to play Manchester United.” before emphasizing that the club wants to win a 10th European Cup and he wants to win his third.
Both Club Captains Missing
Madrid goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas was out with a broken hand, so January signing, Diego Lopez, deputized in his absence.
United keeper David De Gea, the former Atletico Madrid player back in his home town, commented on the absence of Casillas, “I think it can be an advantage for us, they have two other good goalkeepers but Iker is the Spanish national side’s keeper and will be a big loss for them.”
Lopez is no slouch and kept two clean sheets for Villarreal against United in the Champions League in back in 2008.
Absolutely no risks were being taken with United skipper Nemanja Vidic following his two knee operations and lengthy absences. He was not in the squad for this one and so Patrice Evra took over the captain’s armband.
Veteran midfielder Paul Scholes was unavailable with a knee injury, while Ashley Young had recovered from his knee problem, but did not make the starting line-up. Jonny Evans and Phil Jones were both fit, despite going off the field with slight knocks on the weekend.
Michael Carrick began that game on the bench, but was predictably recalled along with Rio Ferdinand.
Real Madrid midfielders Xabi Alonso, Mesut Ozil, and Sami Khedira all returned, although there was something of an injury cloud over Alonso, and it came as no surprise when he ran out of steam and was substituted mid-way through the second half.
Pulsating First Half
It was an absolutely thrilling first half with the ball going from one end of the field to the other in the blink of an eye. Fabio Coentrao might have given Real an early lead in the sixth minute, but De Gea, at full stretch down to his left, just got enough of his fingertips on the ball to deflect it onto the post. It was a save right out of the top drawer.
United’s moment came when England international striker Welbeck rose to meet a Wayne Rooney corner and achieved that elusive combination of power and direction to head the visitors into the lead. However, the advantage only lasted 10 minutes before Ronaldo hung in the air like a bird before dispatching Angel Di Maria’s pinpoint cross past De Gea.
Though no less entertaining for the spectators, the second half was a somewhat more measured affair with both sides wary of making an error that might cost them the game. De Gea pulled off one of those unorthodox but effective saves with his feet to deny Ozil from close range, and Madrid had several attempts from further out, but failed to find the target.
One Ronaldo free kick from all of 40 yards was a fraction too high and landed on the roof of the net with De Gea beaten.
On 72 minutes, Lopez saved a crisp drive from Robin van Persie. Then a couple of minutes later the United marksman uncharacteristically spurned a golden opportunity from a few yards out directly in front of goal.
He somehow failed to make enough contact on the ball to carry it into the net before Real defenders scrambled back to clear their lines.
It was not the best of nights for van Persie who nevertheless still might have won it for United in the final seconds of stoppage time but for another good stop by Lopez.
Manchester United has never won at the Bernebeu although they have now managed three draws, the most memorable of which was a 3–3 thriller in 1968 that took them through to the European Cup Final at Wembley against Benfica.
Munich survivor Bill Foulkes, whose goals were few and far between throughout his long career, fittingly scored the crucial third goal for United to level the score on the night and put his team ahead on aggregate.
They won the home leg 1–0 that year and there is no doubt that everyone at Old Trafford would settle for a similar score line when the return leg is played on Mar. 5.
But Real are more than capable of forcing a result away from home. Mourinho’s teams have always performed well in the “Theatre of Dreams” and that man Ronaldo will surely be anxious to make an impression on his return to his old stomping ground.
Soccer fans around the globe will await the conclusion of this epic with relish.
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