Real Madrid and Manchester United shared the spoils in the most eagerly anticipated first leg tie in the round of 16 of UEFA Champions League for some years. Spain’s most successful club and England’s leading light had somehow evaded each other’s paths for almost a decade. Not anymore, as the two giants of European Football squared off against each other on the hallowed turf of Santiago Bernabéu. In a clash already simmering with undercurrents and side-stories, the game managed to live up to the expectations as a game of football.
Danny Welbeck scored the all important opener for visitors Manchester United, a moment he is not likely to forget anytime soon. The reply to this early setback came from Cristiano Ronaldo (who else?), who continues to rise in stature at Real Madrid with every game. The match continued in a breathless fashion throughout, even Manchester United defending deep in their half in the final forty-five not doing enough to calm the nerves. In the end, with the score at 1-1 after the first leg, there remains everything to play for, for both the teams. Manchester United will have the obvious advantage, but Real Madrid are not out of this by any stretch of imagination.
Gameplay and Tactics
Real Madrid opted to play the familiar 4-2-3-1 formation which was the backbone of all the successes last season. The injury to Iker Casillas meant that Jose Mourinho had no option but to play Diego Lopez in goal and after all his inconsistencies this season, he started with Angel Di Maria on the right flank in place of Jose Callejon who was expected to make the starting line-up. Perhaps he had sensed United’s defensive fragility on the left side and the Argentine did not disappoint. Also Fabio Coentrao was given the mandate to bomb forward when Real Madrid were in possession and the full-back proved a handful throughout the night for United.
Real Madrid Starting Line Up: Diego Lopez(GK); Arbeloa, Sergio Ramos, Varane, Fabio Coentrao; Khedira, Alonso ; Di Maria , Ozil, Ronaldo; Benzema
On the other hand, Alex Ferguson put out an attacking Manchester United side, playing in the familiar 4-4-2 fashion. The attacking intent was clear with van Persie, Rooney, Welbeck and Kagawa all starting. As the game progressed, it became clear that Welbeck and Rooney were playing as left and right sided forwards with more focus on helping out their full backs, respectively. Phil Jones was assigned the duty to man-mark Ronaldo, who was already set to be doubled up on every opportunity by Rooney and Rafael. Manchester United’s intent was to invite pressure and then counter, and to not allow Real Madrid to counter attack themselves.
Manchester United Starting Line Up: De Gea(GK), Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Welbeck , Carrick, Jones, Rooney; Rooney , Van Persie
The first half began with Santiago Bernabéu in fever pitch. The Ultras had only just begun warming up for the big night when Angel Di Maria, who would turn out to be the one of the brightest in Real Madrid ranks on the night, opened the proceedings with a shot on the turn that went just wide. While Arbeloa stayed back in his right back position, Fabio Coentrao, as mentioned, was almost playing as a left winger with Real Madrid in possession. This move by Mourinho almost paid-off when Fabio Coentrao hit the post after drawing a fine save from De Gea. With United’s right side remaining far too occupied with Ronaldo throughout the evening, the Portuguese full back continued to be a thorn.
Real Madrid looked the better of the two in the first quarter of an hour, but it was Manchester United who drew first blood. And it was Real Madrid’s weakness at set-pieces this season that cost them dearly. United had sensed this weakness and there were several red shirts in the box when Rooney swiveled in the ball from a corner and Danny Welbeck rose highest to head home a vital away goal for the visitors. Ramos was the one marking Welbeck in the box and should’ve done better, the goal was conceded far too easily from the point of view of the home side. The reaction to the goal from both Real Madrid and the home crowd, however, was encouraging as Los Blancos continued to push forward. Ronaldo came close with a free kick, although it was the effort after the ball rebounded of the wall that would merit a mention.
And then came the moment of The Prodigal Son. The Bernabéu roared its approval as, in a goal reminiscent of his winner against Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey final in 2011, Ronaldo rose early and headed in the ball in the bottom corner with deadly precision. De Gea, for all his heroics on the night, was never going to get a hand to it. Rooney should’ve done better in the build-up to the goal; he failed to close down Di Maria, allowing the Argentine to put in a dipping cross from which Ronaldo scored and celebrated placidly out of respect for his former club. Rooney continued to look out of sorts in his role all evening.
Next up, United came agonizingly close to taking a lead after a counter-attacking move that was typical of the Red Devils on the night. Welbeck almost scored a second, his shot just wide of the post. It was all down to Diego Lopez as the Real Madrid man did enough to unsettle the young Englishman. The half proceeded to its end with Madrid upping the pressure; Ronaldo was running young and nervous Rafael ragged down the left wing and Ozil forced another good save out of De Gea at his near post, even though the German was shooting with his wrong foot.
Di Maria continued his impressive work from the first half by continuing to get around defenders, although he largely remained confined to shooting from distances. Manchester United gradually went into a shell as they sought to keep Real Madrid from scoring another goal. Even so, the Red Devils came forward at times and looked as likely to score as their counterparts. On one of these counter-attacking moves, United would’ve felt hard done by after the referee waved away protests of a foul on Patrice Evra by Raphael Varane, as the former looked to go through on goal.
From here on, United stuck to their positions in the defensive half. Real Madrid continued to run rings around them but failed to find an opening. United largely forced Madrid to cross into the box rather than playing through them, from which the former took every advantage; being an English team, United are more than used to keeping out crosses into the box. The incisive through ball never came and the lack of form of Real Madrid’s centre forwards meant that United were able to keep out an otherwise vibrant Los Blancos side, keeping in mind the fact that United have not had the best defensive record this season. The second half was slightly reminiscent of Chelsea and Inter Milan’s performances against Barcelona, but only slightly.
Manchester United were dangerous on the counter and for all of Real Madrid’s possession, it could very easily have been a second away goal but for van Persie, who finally missed a goal scoring chance. Put through by Rooney, van Persie smashed a shot on to the bar after Lopez had palmed it away ever so slightly. He then scuffed his shot barely a minute after the last opportunity when Di Maria’s week clearance allowed Unite to pounce again. Xabi Alonso managed to clear the ball of the line.
Prior to that Real Madrid had gone tantalizingly close after a move initiated by the efforts of Sami Khedira created an opportunity for Coentrao and the full back would’ve scored but for De Gea’s unorthodox but effective save to deny him a second time on the night. Rafael was at fault for allowing the Real Madrid full back to be unmarked and ghost in. Khedira was particularly impressive through the second half as he made several driving runs through the middle which caught United by surprise time and again and created space for Los Blancos’ forwards, which they eventually failed to capitalize.
The substitutes introduced by both managers were largely to control the game rather than open it up, and failed to make any substantial impact on the result. The game ended on a rather comical note. United were surging forward in the final minutes and had earned a corner. But the referee blew his whistle before they could take it. A few smirks would’ve been passed around on seeing that United could not utilize ‘Fergie Time’.
Real Madrid would’ve rued the absence of an in-form centre forward who might have opened up a dug-in defence. But there were positives in Di Maria, Ronaldo, Khedira and Lopez’s performances. Alonso too was immaculate with his long range passing. Raphael Varane, apart from his foul on Evra was immense for Real Madrid on the night. They will need more from their forwards and a more sound defence in the next game.
Manchester United on the other hand had more positives to take. De Gea’s performance was loopy at times, but he did his job and deserves the accolades after all the criticism he has received. His associations with Atletico Madrid would have been all the more infuriating for Real Madrid faithful and delighting for him. Welbeck, who scored the all important away goal and Phil Jones who managed to keep Cristiano Ronaldo largely quiet through the game, too had nights to remember. Ferdinand too put in a strong performance.
All in all, the game remains delicately poised after an entertaining first leg clash. The scoreline ensures that neither team will be completely sure of their position and will need goals to feel secure of their position in the tie. Expect goals and entertainment in the second leg clash as well. Jose Mourinho has won at Old Trafford before, will he do it again? While that cannot be certain, you could be certain that Sir Alex will bring around a better bottle of wine this time around.