By Teng Kiat
It was Real Madrid against Manchester United, it was Jose Mourinho against Sir Alex Ferguson, but it was mostly all about Cristiano Ronaldo, who was set to face off against the club that set him on his way to football superstardom.
There must not have been a single onlooker who was surprised when the Portuguese maestro leapt like a salmon to expertly guide a header into the corner of the net on the half hour in the first leg of this Champions League Round of 16 tie, notching his 183rd goal in 180 official games since moving to Madrid.
Ronaldo played his part in an entertaining and high-quality clash between two of the sport’s most recognizable clubs, but his performance was arguably outshone by the man whose goal he cancelled out.
Perhaps ‘boy’ would be a more appropriate term for 22-year-old Danny Welbeck, who has constantly been derided as not being good enough to play for a club of Manchester United’s stature. Critics point to his poor goalscoring record for a striker (two in 28 matches before this morning), but they fail to acknowledge his work-rate.
That quality was clearly evident in his display against the most successful club in Europe’s top club competition as the Manchester-born forward worked his socks off, and then some. Welbeck’s value to the team is that he does exactly what Ferguson wants him to – run the channels, hustle opposing defenders – in every game, thus providing a constant presence upfront.
He could have added a second if it wasn’t for Raphael Varane’s last-ditch tackle, but by then he had scored a valuable away goal for his side with a glancing header off Wayne Rooney’s corner. It is true that his finishing needs work, as well as his decision-making, but it is also worth remembering his young age means he still has plenty of time to work these issues out.
Meanwhile, another 22-year-old who has often come under the spotlight was also proving his doubters wrong at the other end of the pitch.
Born three miles from the Bernabeu, David de Gea put in a stunning display on his return to the Spanish capital. The goalkeeper brilliantly touched Fabio Coentrao’s curling effort onto the post in the sixth minute, which was the prelude to a show of shot-stopping excellence.
The lanky custodian could do nothing about Ronaldo’s magnificent header but was otherwise unbeatable as he denied Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria and Sami Khedira. Coentrao was thwarted for a second time by a superb, albeit unorthodox stop from De Gea with his legs, the acrobatic save capping a wonderful night for the former Atletico man.
Those two fine individual showings were complemented by a concerted effort from the rest of their teammates against a Real side that had threatened to run riot in the first half, both before and after Welbeck’s opener.
The fluid movement of Di Maria, Ronaldo and Benzema as they interchanged positions in the final third were pulling the United midfield all over the place, as Ozil and Xabi Alonso dictated play with incisive passing behind them. Rafael in particular had a torrid time on the right against Ronaldo and Ozil, with Rooney offering scant protection despite the England striker being deployed in midfield alongside Phil Jones, presumably for such a purpose.
Jones, nullifier of Everton’s Marouane Felliani at the weekend, was tasked to do the same against Ronaldo and he gamely gave his all, with a superb block in the dying stages the highlight of his game. The 20-year-old was however clumsy at times and was perhaps a little lucky to get away with a few hefty challenges, in particular a shove on Di Maria in the penalty area.
Ferguson had clearly set his team up to play on the counter-attack, with Shinji Kagawa furthest up the pitch while Van Persie, Rooney and Welbeck worked from deep. But with Rooney offering little attacking-wise, Real encamped themselves in the United half and created many chances; chances they might rue not taking.
Van Persie himself will be wondering what could have been after hitting the bar and then seeing a scuffed volley cleared off the line by Alonso, as United turned in a much better second half performance.
Rafael acquitted himself with a more assured display despite being on a yellow card, as Rooney shifted right and Welbeck moved to the centre to check Alonso. Two banks of four faced Real every time they advanced to the edge of the United box, as their opponents shut down all the spaces to bemuse a home side that are at their devastating best when they hit teams on the break.
Mourinho threw on Luka Modric to help unpick the United wall to no avail and indeed the Red Devils could have won it late on through Ryan Giggs and Van Persie, with the former opting not to shoot when presented with a good opportunity while the latter was denied by a fine save from Diego Lopez.
That meant the tie is now finely poised for the return leg in three weeks’ time at Old Trafford, which Mourinho believes is still a ‘50/50’ game despite the away goal. Ferguson concurs that it will be an ‘open’ game, but also backs his side to progress: “We've got a big job on our hands, but it's definitely within our grasp.”
With Ronaldo playing the role of the returning prodigal son to a stadium where his Brazilian namesake received a standing ovation for a hat-trick in 2003, it will be intriguing to see what further sub-plots the second leg of this titanic match-up has in store for us.