Cristiano Ronaldo marked his first match against his former employers with an almost inevitable goal, but it was David de Gea who stole the show upon his return to Madrid on a captivating night at the Bernabeu.
Ronaldo respectfully declined to celebrate as he headed home on the half-hour mark to equalize Danny Welbeck’s own header to open the scoring. Despite Real Madrid’s dominance throughout, former Atletico Madrid goalkeeper De Gea made countless fine saves to ensure Manchester United head back to Old Trafford for the second-leg with the Champions League last-16 tie still firmly in the balance.
Having taken the lead and also seeing Robin van Persie going close on more than once occasion to a second after the break, United may feel the night could have been even better for them, but Sir Alex Ferguson must surely be happy to get the one away goal after his side were on the back foot for large spells.
While Jose Mourinho’s selection contained few surprises, with Raphael Varane starting ahead of the still not fully fit Pepe, Sir Alex Ferguson opted for a surprisingly attacking lineup. Welbeck, Shinji Kagawa and Wayne Rooney were all included as support behind Robin van Persie, with Phil Jones providing the protection alongside Michael Carrick. There was no place for the unfit Nemanja Vidic.
It was Real Madrid that set the early tone as they came quickly out of the traps with Sami Khedira firing a shot wide from Karim Benzema’s early pass in the opening seconds.
After just six minutes, Madrid came even closer to taking the lead. Cristiano Ronaldo’s low cross was only half cleared by Rio Ferdinand and Fabio Coentrao hit a fine first-time right-footed effort that required a world-class save from David de Gea to take it onto the post.
United were still striving to get a real foothold, but, against the run of play, found themselves in front on 20 minutes. From Wayne Rooney’s corner, Danny Welbeck held off the challenge of Sergio Ramos and headed into corner past Diego Lopez.
Madrid would only be behind for 10 minutes, though, and there was little surprise in the identity of the man who got them level. On his first match against his former club since leaving for Madrid, Ronaldo showed the aerial ability he honed in Manchester as he hung in the air above Patrice Evra and headed Angel Di Maria’s cross past De Gea.
United threatened only sparingly, but came agonizingly close to going back in front.
Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa linked up well down the left and the Dutchman crossed into the near post for Welbeck, but the England forward could just get his studs to the ball and it went behind off of Lopez. From the resulting corner Wayne Rooney fired a low effort just wide of the near post.
But, as the half wore on, Madrid’s dominance increased as United struggled to cope with the movement of the home side’s attacking quartet supplied by the always astute passing of Xabi Alonso.
It was the former Liverpool midfielder who caught out Jonny Evans with a quickly taken free-kick over the top that got Mesut Ozil free, but the German’s shot with his weaker right foot was parried away at the near post by De Gea.
With Madrid also having a penalty appeal turned down when Jones shrugged Di Maria to the ground, United will have been relieved to get in all square at the break as a rapturous Bernabeu crowd sensed a second goal.
There was little let up as Madrid continued to press in search of a potentially vital second goal after the break and Di Maria narrowly missed the target with a shot from 20 yards.
After a rare coherent passing movement for the visitors, came one of the game’s more controversial moments. Evra was played through the middle and Varane appeared to bring down the defender to prevent him going through on goal, but to Evra’s amazement not even a free-kick was given.
Madrid were soon back on the offensive. Coentrao, constantly looking to attack, arrived at the back post from Khedira’s excellent cross, but again De Gea rescued United with another save, this time with his legs. Minutes later, Ronaldo almost got his second, as Higuain tried to find him with a perfect low cross to the near post, but Ferdinand did exceptionally to prevent his former teammate turning the ball on goal.
Out of nowhere came two glorious chances for United and Van Persie. First, United’s top scorer struck a venomous shot with his weaker right foot after being put through by Rooney that went through the hands of Lopez but thundered back off the bar. Just seconds later, Rooney headed the ball back into the area and with Madrid failing in their attempts to play him offside, Van Persie found himself free eight yards from goal but uncharacteristically scuffed his volley, allowing Alonso to clear off the line. The former Arsenal man again went close in the final minutes as his low shot across goal was turned wide by Lopez.
It was United’s back line that deserves much of the credit for leaving the Bernabeu in such a strong position. In the closing minutes, Madrid again came close to finding a second, but first De Gea made yet another save, from Khedira’s deflected shot and then Jones did exceptionally to deny Ronaldo a shot following a near-post cross.