IT takes a formidable feat of concentration, not to mention sheer bloody-mindedness, to survive 90 minutes at the Bernabeu without the 11 men in white shirts taking you apart piece-by agonising-piece, but finding themselves at the eye of a storm last night, Manchester United held on nicely.
This is not the way Alex Ferguson's team want to approach football matches, last-ditch tackles and counter-attack when they can, but opponents like these demand it.
One silly mistake, one rash tackle and the whole careful piece of work that is built slowly and deliberately can come crashing down, but last night, United, with Danny Welbeck's precious away goal, gave themselves one hell of a chance back at Old Trafford on March 5.
Ferguson got it right, with a team that managed to nullify the threat of Cristiano Ronaldo – who only scored once – a poor return by his soaring standards.
It required a work of unstinting sacrifice from the likes of Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa, who were among a group of United players who had to curb the usual instincts to hold Madrid out.
Of course, the home side dominated – did we ever expect anything else? But United carved some chances for themselves and they finished complaining to the German referee Felix Brych that they were not permitted to take a last corner after another shot from Robin van Persie was saved by Diego Lopez.
Van Persie also had a shot kicked off the line earlier and on the scraps he was fed, he very nearly conjured up a feast.
There was hardly room to breathe out there. Especially not for a United side subject to wave after wave of attack, most of it at the prancing feet of Ronaldo who nonetheless had plenty of support.
It was like the last five minutes of a cup final for them, but played over an entirely relentless first half. There was some heroic defending from United, especially in a couple of crucial tackles by Michael Carrick around the box.
Rafael Da Silva, given the daunting task of marking Ronaldo, could not stop him every time, but there was much that was good about his play. He picked up a yellow card late in the half for a foul on Karim Benzema, which put the Brazilian full-back in a difficult position. This was a United defence without Nemanja Vidic, who struggles to play consecutive games and was not even on the bench.
When Ronaldo did come in to head the equaliser, United found themselves badly organised as the diminutive Patrice Evra was isolated with Ronaldo who, to make matters worse had the running jump on him. But that was the only time they got themselves in the wrong places.
As for Real, they looked much the shakier in defence. There was very little that found its way through to Van Persie but when it did, he made things happen in the most unpromising situations. It was Van Persie's flick that allowed Shinji Kagawa a run at goal which led to the disputed corner from which United scored.
That goal showed up the cracks in Madrid. Sergio Ramos, one of the chief anti-Mourinho agitators, was too busy trying to get a handful of Welbeck's shirt to prevent the United man pulling off him nicely and placing a sweet header just in the place where a man on the far post could have stuck out a leg and stopped it. There was no one there.
It was against the run of play, but then United's chances were always going to come on the counter-attack.
Welbeck's goal came on 20 minutes and Ronaldo out-jumped Evra to score the equaliser 10 tense minutes later, during which Mourinho was off his seat and trying to marshall his players. In the interim, David De Gea, who had a good first half, saved from Angel Di Maria and Van Persie stopped a Ronaldo free-kick with his face.
United were still arguing that the ball had gone out of play when Rafael ushered Mesut Ozil to the touchline on 29 minutes as Madrid began the move for their goal. For that reason, they failed to get out to Di Maria before he picked out Ronaldo towards the back post with an unerring cross. On such small margins do games like these swing.
Overall, Madrid managed almost twice as many attempts on goal in the first half as United, but then what did anyone expect? Rooney was played out on the right of what was, for most of the time, a five-man midfield, and he had none of the latitude to get forward. A booking very early on for Van Persie made things tricky for him but he remained integral in giving United a way out of the pressure heaped on them.
The Ronaldo effect after half-time was considerably reduced, indeed, for much of the half it was Angel Di Maria who looked the more dangerous. De Gea made an excellent save with his feet on the hour, scuttling back across goal to block Coentrao's shot from Sami Khedira's ball to the back post.
In that first 15 minutes of the second half, United managed to keep Madrid at bay and perhaps the most telling moment of the game was when Evra found himself running onto a throughball from Carrick with Raphael Varane in pursuit. The younger Frenchman seemed to foul Evra, and there was no covering defender left, but the German referee waved play on.
Ozil and Xabi Alonso were excellent for Madrid, keeping the attacks moving and when later Mourinho brought Gonzalo Higuain and then Luka Modric off his bench of extraordinary talent, so the stakes were raised higher. But with 18 minutes to go, United were given an unlikely chance to score when Rooney broke from midfield and played the ball into the right channel for Van Persie.
He looked as if he had gone too wide but an explosive shot was pushed up onto the bar by Lopez and United recycled the ball to Carrick whose header forward beat the offside line. With only Lopez to beat, Van Persie hit his shot into the ground meaning it lost sufficient pace that Alonso could scoop it off the line.
The introduction of Ryan Giggs drew applause from all around the Bernabeu. De Gea saved from Khedira with 21 minutes to go but the door remained locked in the final stages.
The second leg will be intriguing and United, having silenced the Bernabeu, will anticipate that the advantage is theirs. (© Independent News Service)