Keeshaanan Sundaresan lauds the defensive performance of Manchester United, as they secured a vital 1-1 draw in the first leg of their Champions League tie against Real MadridTurn back time a couple of months and you'll remember the entire world going around discussing the ancient Mayan prediction for the apocalypse. But then came the Champions League Round of 16 draw which saw the 'end of the world' given a respite as the Gods were hell-bent on watching Real Madrid take on Manchester United. At least that was what many claimed.
Lame metaphors apart, this was an encounter that was destined to open the gate of heavens. A titanic clash between two teams that possesses immense footballing quality on eitheir side. It expectedly got the whole world buzzing as Twitter, Facebook and a plethora of other social networking sites went blasting off with contents related to this game.
It wasn't only the 'Cristiano Ronaldo factor'. Historically, Real Madrid and Manchester United share a very discrete, unctuous rivalry. The Devils are regarded as England's best footballing side, while Madrid are undoubtedly the supreme team in Spanish football history. You probably wouldn't be doing the right thing to compare this with the El Clasico, because this one has an ambience of its own.
But while both sets of fans were thoroughly anticipating an entertaining clash, there was a certain degree of anxiety. Probably more discernible with the Devil's faithful. The fact that United's defence has been abysmal on a flurry of occassions this season made this particular mission a worrying one. Plus, you don't have to be Jose Mourinho to know that Real Madrid are a side that is ultimately built on counter attacks.
Then came the match itself.
Real Madrid started well, synchronizing with their boisterous home fans. But the script has an antilogy from the beginning. David De Gea did brilliantly to save Fabio Coentrao's effort from the edge of the box. The attempt looked destined for the back of the net and when the Spaniard pulled off that outstanding save. You could just tell that this was going to be delicate for the Spanish side.
It was unusual to see United being pinned back in their half on most occasions as Los Blancos dominated the possession. But Sir Alex, predictably, got his tactics right for this clash. He knew that if you could contain Madrid's midfield and not allow them time and space on the ball, chances of gaining a favourable result would be high. The tactical preparation for this game began weeks ago.
Phil Jones was central to the game yesterday and it would have came off no surprise to those that have been keeping a close eye on him in the last few weeks. We've often spoken about how the Devils lack a cutting edge in the defensive midfield area, but Jones is turning out to be quite stellar. He was tasked with marking Gareth Bale a few weeks ago and he did it impressively. Last weekend, Jones kept a close eye on Marouane Fellaini and prevented the Belgian from exerting his influence.
Last night, the comparisons between him and the late United legend Duncan Edwards began to make sense. Not to say that his performance at the Bernabeu was a sudden surprise but rather he portrayed immense understanding of the game and also the maturity to make the right tackles and challenges in a game of such high profile.
It's probably safe to say that Angel Di Maria was perhaps Madrid's best performer until he was surprisingly substituted - not many saw what Mourinho did. The Argentinean was running all around the field, trying to find an opening but whenever he went, Jones was consistently there to shut him down. Likewise, Mesut Ozil was given very little time on the ball, with Jones closing him down within seconds. It was a sight to behold.
And then, we have David De Gea, who glowed in exuberance between the sticks for United last night. It was arguably his best ever showing in a Manchester United shirt - silencing his ardent critics. In total, De Gea made eight crucial saves, which is an amazing number for a young man of his age. More importantly, these saves were made against a side that is deemed to have the deadliest attack in Europe.
Rafael was consistently bullied in the first half but steadied himself as the game progressed. It was definitely a credible defensive performance, which justified Sir Alex's faith in his defenders. Calls for a new centre back have been ringing for some time now, but Fergie's men proved last night why form is temporary and that class is permanent. 25 years at helm and Sir Alex never fails to amaze you with his trust in players. Jonny Evans is reaping the rewards of that now.
Nevertheless, both sides gave it their all in the match as it turned out to be an excellent spectacle for world of football. Welbeck's goal proved why he is such an invaluable talent for the Red Devils, while Cristiano Ronaldo's equalizer demonstrated his tremendous ability to defy the laws of physics. Nothing short of a revelation.
But the moment of the game came right after the final whistle. Cristiano Ronaldo embraced his ex team-mates before moving over to greet Sir Alex with a hug that would have brought tears to the eyes of those who watched him dazzle and enthrall the Old Trafford pitch.
Howbeit, the tie itself is pretty open as they face off for the second leg next month. United are completely a different side at Old Trafford and the reception will also be phenomenal for Cristiano Ronaldo. Who knows, it could be the moment when Ronaldo ultimately sets his heart on a return to Manchester United?
"Viva Ronaldo, viva Ronaldo, put him on a plane and bring him back from Spain, viva Ronaldo."