1. From about ten minutes in to yesterday’s game I was clock-watching at a rate I would usually expect in the last five minutes of a game, with United being dominated at the Bernabeu and Real Madrid looking as though they would score any minute. The defence were doing a decent enough job, David de Gea was at his best, but we still looked shaky and faced wave after wave of Real Madrid on the attack. To leave the Bernabeu with a point after not buckling under the pressure we were put under by the likes of Ronaldo, Ozil and Di Maria, was great. If I was to be slightly more optimistic, I’d say we probably should have won the game with the chances we had in the second half through Van Persie and Giggs, so you know your team is doing something right if a draw there leaves you satisfied, rather than ecstatic. We got the away goal we craved and ensured that we take the advantage to Old Trafford. Brilliant.
2. When the starting XI was announced, the only player to raise a few eyebrows was Danny Welbeck, who hasn’t been a regular starter for us in the league. The local boy, who some United fans claim isn’t good enough, did more than enough to justify his inclusion, and was probably our best player on the night. He took his goal so well, getting the better of Sergio Ramos from a Wayne Rooney corner, and left Diego Lopez with no chance. Seeing him wheel away in celebration was brilliant to watch. This lad from Longsight, who grew up kicking a ball on the streets with his neighbours Wes and Reece Brown, had just put United ahead at the Bernabeu. It doesn’t get much bigger than that and I’m sure it will be a night he will never forget. Welbeck is living our dream and I was delighted for him. Of course, it wasn’t just the goal though. Welbeck was good in possession, ran at the Real Madrid defence, and repeatedly provided an option for our players going forward. He’s only 22, lest we forget, so hopefully those who have been whinging about him not being United standard will keep quiet for a while now. “He was marvellous,” said the manager after the game. “It is a pity he got cramp at the end of game, but he worked so hard. They found it difficult to handle him.”
3. The only other player who could rival Welbeck for our best performer is David de Gea, who put on a brilliant show, making incredible saves with his hands and feet. The best of the night came from Coentrao with just a few minutes on the clock. Somehow he managed to get his finger tips to a goal-bound shot and touch it on to the post. To go a goal behind at such an early stage would have been devastating but that wasn’t the only time he kept us in the game. In the second half, Coentrao probably thought he’d scored again, until De Gea got a boot to the ball at waist-height. I’m not entirely sure why he didn’t use his hands but whatever gets the job done is fine by me! “De Gea was excellent,” Ferguson said. “He made three or four top saves. He has been improving all season. There was one save in the first half which he touched onto the post which was superb. I am pleased for him. He is an Atlético boy playing here in Madrid, but he has done well.”
4. Another player who deserves to be singled out for praise is Phil Jones, who, whilst not quite snuffing Cristiano Ronaldo out the game, kept to him closely enough when called upon. With a few minutes left to play Ronaldo had the ball at his feet a few yards out and Jones threw himself in the way to protect the goal. He has repeatedly claimed that he wants to play at centre half but it looks more and more likely that he will settle in midfield. He certainly found it easier keeping Bale and Fellaini quiet in recent weeks but he did a commendable job at the Bernabeu, marking one of the best players in the world at just 20-years-old.
5. Cristiano Ronaldo took his goal well, seeming to levitate in the box when the cross came in, just as he did when scoring in the European Cup final for United against Chelsea. Of course, the task was made a lot easier for him without any physical presence from Patrice Evra, who was rooted to the spot for some reason. There’s no way Evra would have been able to outjump Ronaldo but putting pressure on him and challenging him for the ball might have been enough to put him off at least! Ronaldo, as expected, was respectful with his celebration, and any hope of the night being too “emotional” for him to perform was, as I expected, wishful thinking.
6. Rafael da Silva had a torrid time in the first half with Ronaldo and Ozil forcing their way past him time and again. He was booked just before half time and you had to wonder whether Ferguson would make a change to save us from what looked like a red card in the making. Chris Smalling, who is speedy enough, could have been preferred to him for the second half, particularly with his advantage of height, but the manager stuck with our Brazilian and it paid off. Whilst some newspaper reports have summed up Rafael’s night with a rating of 3 or 4, it should be noted that he got a grip of the game in the second half. We should also remember that 22-year-old Rafael was given the task of handling Coentrao and Ronaldo pretty much by himself at times, with Ozil sometimes swapping sides with Ronaldo to join in on the act. I can’t imagine there are too many right-backs who would have done a much better job. Let’s not forget that highly rated Pablo Zabaleta had a mare for City when he came on at the Bernabeu earlier this season, allowing Ronaldo on to his right foot to score the injury time winner. It was a footballing lesson for our youngster last night and I’m sure he will be all the better for it.
7. One reason for Rafael’s exposure was Rooney’s contribution, or lack of it, particularly in the first half. It was as if he didn’t really know where he was meant to be playing. He seemed to work hard enough, sprinting here and there, but it was his man who delivered the cross for the opening goal after he got nowhere near tight enough to Di Maria. His usual partner in crime, Robin van Persie, will be even more disappointed with his display. An early booking and escaping a possible red card after deliberate handball, didn’t help his cause, but it was missing that sitter in the second half that really summed his game up. After controlling the ball so well he just had to put his foot through it to score, but miskicked and watched it harmlessly bobble towards the line before being cleared. You’d expect him to score chances like that every day of the week. Still, hopefully that frustration will inspire him to do better in the home leg, when you imagine we will need at least two goals to go through.
8. Michael Carrick saw more of the ball than any of our players and covered the most distance. He quietly goes about his business but is so effective at calming our midfield. It would be harsh to expect him to boss the Real Madrid midfield but he certainly wasn’t punching above his weight. Only Ozil (46) and Khedira (44) completed more passes than Carrick (40) last night, and Khedira was the only player on the park who was more accurate with his passing.
9. “Footballing reasons” keep Rio Ferdinand out of the England set up, according to Roy Hodgson. It’s bizarre that Sir Alex Ferguson, the greatest manager this country has ever seen, believes Ferdinand is good enough to face the stars of Real Madrid, but Hodgson doesn’t fancy him enough to even include him in the England squad which will face San Marino in March. It’s all becoming fairly embarrassing for Hodgson, particularly given that Rio played a blinder. Jonny Evans stepped up to the plate too, showing how much he has improved over the past few years.
10. All in all, we have to be happy with that result and performance, which was the first real test for this team. After failing to get out of the group last season and signing a few new players, there were several lads out there last night who’d never played in a Round of 16 game for us, and none of them have faced Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid before. Ferguson said before the game it would be an “acid test” for them and whilst we didn’t pass with flying colours, it was pleasing to see how rigidly our players are capable of sticking to tactics and working so hard as a unit. They will be absolutely knackered today after giving it their all for 90 minutes, so it’s a relief we don’t have to face a strong team this weekend. You assume we will see a lot of rotation to give the XI from last night a rest. The lads did themselves proud though, showing they are ready to compete with the best, and I can’t wait for the second leg!
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