United Wel' on way
AT THE final whistle, Manchester United fans sang loudly about going to Wembley, venue of this year's Champions League final. There is much work to be done, many miles to travel and obstacles to clear but this was a good night for Alex Ferguson's side.
A draw, an away goal, a performance of sustained collective resilience and some excellent individual displays: United came to the Bernabeu and played without fear. David de Gea really deserved the man-of-the-match honours for eight saves, some unorthodox but effective.
Rio Ferdinand, such an experienced, alert defender, made a mockery of Roy Hodgson's "footballing reasons" for his England omission. The dynamic Phil Jones shielded the back-four well, Rafael recovered from his first-half mauling by Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil while Danny Welbeck totally vindicated Ferguson's decision to start him against Jose Mourinho's team.
Mourinho had predicted this was the game the whole world was waiting for. Ferguson promised goals. Both were right. The first half alone was superb, full of thrust and counter-thrust, a mesmerising contribution from Ozil, two fine headed goals, an unbelievable save from De Gea and a wonderfully dismissive wave from the snooped Special One towards United fans who were chanting "sit down Mourinho".
As he stood at the edge of his technical area, Mourinho was treated to some defensive wobbles by his side and some wonderful attacking. Ozil kept dribbling forward. So did Angel di Maria. Ronaldo was Ronaldo, an elegant, athletic threat.
From the first whistle, Real powered towards De Gea's goal. Sami Khedira shot wide, so did Di Maria. Ferguson decided to trust in Rafael to combat Ronaldo alone, although Phil Jones occasionally rushed across like a fireman. He needed to. So did Wayne Rooney, dropping back from his right-sided role in the triumvirate supporting Robin van Persie. It was insufficient. Rafael needed more protection.
Ronaldo versus Rafael was not a fair fight in the early stages. The young Brazilian needed help, particularly when Ozil also started running at him, bringing a booking. From the first minute, Real made good ground down the left.
Some United fans, delayed outside by the police, were still taking up their seats when Ronaldo beat Rafael and crossed into the box. Ferdinand's clearance flew straight to Fabio Coentrao, the left-back whose shot was tipped onto the post by De Gea. It was a brilliant save by the former Atletico Madrid keeper, ignoring the barracking of the Real fans behind the goal.
They soon fell silent. Briefly. After 19 minutes, Rooney curled over a corner and Welbeck had timed his little run and leap well, exploiting Sergio Ramos' lax marking to score with a firm header. Di Maria had appeared to be guarding that post, but was drawn across as Rooney's corner came in, gifting Welbeck the space. Welbeck, a boyhood United fan, ran to the corner and saluted the away contingent celebrating up in the gods. Welbeck is occasionally the target of criticism, but he is only 22, still developing with club and country.
A rather more established name than him took centre stage. Ronaldo was fouled by Jones, allowing him a free-kick opportunity 30 yards out.
His kick flew into the wall, and his left-footed follow-up went wide.
Just before the half-hour, Ronaldo equalised. Di Maria's delivery was excellent, the ball lifted across towards Ronaldo but the Portuguese attacker's response was magnificent. He met the ball with a powerful header, reviving memories of his goal for United in the 2008 final in Moscow. Out of respect for his former team-mates, Ronaldo kept celebrations to a minimum.
Both sides kept going for it. Rooney and Xabi Alonso went in hard but fairly on each other. A quick touch of the hands confirmed their respect.
United fans were singing about Wembley as Rooney shot wide. Old troubles resurfaced. Rafael panicked and pulled down Ozil, earning a booking from Felix Brych.
Real continued to trouble United. Coentrao lifted in a cross which Ronaldo headed wide. The second half opened in similar vein with Di Maria twice going close. Mourinho made his first change, removing Karim Benzema for Gonzalo Higuain, trying to sharpen his attack. On the hour, De Gea made an astonishing save, albeit unconventional, keeping out Coentrao's effort with his feet when it seemed easier to use his hands.
United were now coming under sustained attack. They needed to keep the ball better in midfield so Ferguson sent on Ryan Giggs, who was given warm applause by the Real fans.
Giggs replaced Shinji Kagawa, who had been quiet. Giggs brought a measure of control. United could even have retaken the lead. Rooney slid the ball into the area for Van Persie, whose right-footed shot was pushed against the bar by Diego Lopez. Van Persie (below) then had a golden opportunity to score but scuffed his shot. He was still important, making a headed clearance from a Real corner. Ferguson made a second change, withdrawing the tiring Welbeck and sending on Antonio Valencia.
Welbeck's formidable shift of work was acknowledged with a warm handshake from Ferguson. Mourinho was also using his reserves, sending on Luka Modric for Di Maria.
United were defending deep and in numbers. De Gea then made his eighth save of the evening, clutching a Khedira drive that deflected off Michael Carrick with 11 minutes left. United were breaking out only rarely. Two minutes later, Giggs was presented with a superb chance but strangely decided not to shoot first time, even thought the ball was sitting up nicely for his left foot. He took an extra touch and Real slammed the door. Mourinho twisted again, taking off Alonso, who had been hampered with a groin strain and sending on Pepe.
Anderson came on for Rooney, who had worked hard for the team but rarely influenced proceedings, beyond the corner for Welbeck.
His old friend Ronaldo almost won the first leg for Real with five minutes left. The free-kick was 40 yards out but that does not bother Ronaldo, who sent the ball over the wall but narrowly over De Gea's bar.
There was still one late scare for United but Jones nipped in ahead of Ronaldo to clear.
Real also escaped a late shock, Diego Lopez saving from Van Persie.
Brych, strangely, did not allow United to take the corner even though there were a few seconds remaining. United voiced their frustrations but departed satisfied.