A thoroughly entertaining match, an electric atmosphere in an unforgettable stadium and a fair, balanced result to lead into a potentially explosive second leg.
This was the match everyone was eager to see and it didn't disappoint. Enthralling in the first half thanks to Real Madrid's endeavour, intensity and quality with the ball, it became a more intriguing tactical battle after the break, and although Manchester United will be delighted with the result and an away goal, there were more than enough promising signs from the Spaniards to fill them with confidence ahead of the return leg.
Cristiano Ronaldo's majestic goal, a supremely powerful leap and guided header, cancelled out Danny Welbeck's opener for the visitors and set the foundations for what is likely to be a memorable encounter at Old Trafford. The tie is perfectly balanced; United, at home, will be expected to push forward but Real Madrid proved, just as they have done all season, how threatening they can be on the counter-attack thanks to the pace and skill of their attacking stars.
As the second best player in the world and a former United star, the majority of pre-match talk was centred on Ronaldo and the Portuguese superstar, for 45 minutes at least, thrived on it. With all eyes on him, he produced a mesmeric first-half display, full of vibrancy, tormenting Rafael down United's right. There were periods when Ronaldo needlessly showboated - the crowd were treated to a shoulder-pass, the no-look pass and various unnecessary flicks and touches - but when he kept it simple, using his pace, power and quick feet out wide, he was on a different level.
He was helped before the break by United's tactics, the deployment of Wayne Rooney on the right to supposedly assist Rafael and by the away team's willingness to commit men forward. Whilst Rooney was nominally aware of his defensive duties, he desperately struggled to provide his fullback with any support, leaving the Brazilian to deal with not just the imposing threat of Ronaldo, but also the dangerous overlaps of Fabio Coentrao and the intelligent movement of Mesut Ozil.
With the visitors pushing high up the pitch, using both Rooney and Welbeck in wide positions, that left considerable amounts of space in front of their defence. It meant that Ozil, Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso were key figures in the first half, their ability to move the ball quickly, finding Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria on the wings or Karim Benzema in the channels, causing United all sorts of problems.
Di Maria, such a prodigiously talented individual but someone who perhaps hasn't always delivered on the biggest stage, was tremendous in the first half. His quality on the ball, the capability to dribble at speed, twisting and turning United's defenders, was excellent, as was his workrate in tracking back and getting stuck in. He produced the delightful, inch-perfect cross from which Ronaldo scored and it was a surprise when he was withdrawn early in the second half.
After the break, the visiting side opted for a much more cautious approach, deciding to defend deeper, nullifying Real Madrid's threat on the counter-attack and they made life far more difficult for Jose Mourinho's team. With the onus on them to break down United, Real Madrid struggled to find the guile in and around the box. Luka Modric was introduced to add some creativity in the final third, but United defended superbly, limiting the space and time in which Ronaldo and Ozil could work and with Danny Welbeck's pace over the top, they had a valuable outlet.
For much of the game, Real Madrid were impressive, their desire to press the away side high up the pitch forcing errors from the English side, but with neither Benzema nor Gonzalo Higuain at their best, they lacked a predator. The Frenchman offered a physical threat to support the trickery of those around him, but he lacked the touch or awareness to bring Ronaldo and Di Maria into play. Should someone of the calibre of Radamel Falcao or Edinson Cavani join in the summer, it would be the perfect addition - a striker capable of playing on his own with the ability to link up play and score goals himself. It's the missing link to what, on their day, is a terrific Real Madrid team.
The atmosphere at the Bernabeu deserves a special mention, the madridistas' support before, during and after the match for their team a sight to behold. Whilst Mourinho may be under pressure and looking likely to move on in the summer, the fans got behind him throughout the game, cheering his name wildly when it was read out pre-match. During the game, too, the noise reverberated around the impressive stadium, the steep stands lending themselves to a cacophonous atmosphere. It was a privilege to be there.
Overall, the draw was probably a fair result. Real Madrid were outstanding in the first half but the tempo dropped after the break and they lacked the craft to break down a resilient and organised United backline. It is perfectly poised for the second leg.
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