First leg of Real Madrid and Manchester United’s much awaited round of 16 tie finished 1-1 with ,somewhat surprise inclusion (something which Shaun Birch predicted in his lineup in our Q&A) , Danny Welbeck scoring first and then Cristiano Ronaldo equalled matters with a massive leap to head the ball in. Both goals came in the first half. The score puts things slightly in Manchester United’s favour as they have an all important away goal.
Five conclusions from the game:
- When the starting XI was announced, Real Madrid’s XI seemed familiar and expected. Raphael Varane in the starting lineup while Pepe on the bench. Elsewhere, no place for Jose Callejon or Marcelo. On the United side, there were surprise changes with Valencia on the bench, despite having had a poor season so far. There were no wingers deployed by United which would have made life difficult for Arbeloa and Coentrao on the flanks. Plus, Welbeck starting was a surprise as well. But as things unfurled, it was clear that it was a smart move in the end. Welbeck got the all important goal for United as Ramos slipped up in his marking of the England international.
- Major focus was always going to be on Cristiano Ronaldo and it was well deserved. In the 30th minute, Di Maria and Cristiano swapped wings with Di Maria moving to the left and whipping in a quality ball inside the area which was met by a towering Cristiano Ronaldo and headed in for the equaliser. Two aspects of the goal struck out – Cristiano’s leap and then the ability to direct the header. Cristiano’s jump was so high that his knees were near Evra’s face, leaving the Frenchman with no chance to defend that header. Moreover, the hangtime was impressive as well. Then he had the ability to direct the header into the corner beating De Gea who was exceptional on the night. Other than that, Cristiano was kept relatively quiet by United defence.
- David De Gea was quite possibly the best player for United on the night and could even be handed the man of the match honours. He had never picked a draw or a win at the Bernabeu in his Atletico Madrid days but he showed that he is more than capable of helping his side pick up important results. He was on hand to deny Coentrao, Cristiano, Di Maria and many other shots which on another day, against another keeper, might have been a goal. The game would probably put to rest the criticism that De Gea had received so far this season.
- Between Di Maria and Ozil, Di Maria was the better of the two. He took shots on and kept bothering De Gea and the United defence in the first half and tried to provide killer passes to Cristiano or Benzema. Ozil, while putting in a lot of effort and being all over the place, was more subdued. The German had little to provide in terms of creativity which is mostly due to United’s tight defending effort and less due to Ozil’s poor vision of spotting play.
- Both Higuain and Benzema had a poor game by their standards. So far this season, neither have shone as they did last year and provided Cristiano the company in scoring goals at free will. Benzema started the game but looked lazy and helpless at times. He barely made any runs behind the defence or get shots on goal to bother De Gea. Higuain came on as his replacement at the hour mark. He nearly provided an assist for Cristiano with a cross from the right but it was defended and resulted to nothing. Comparatively speaking, Higuain was the better of the two on the night but when seeing from a general perspective, neither had a good game. This would result in the regular “sell Higuain/ sell Benzema/ sell Higuain and Benzema” sort of comments now but if we have the same approach each time someone has a poor string of games or poor season, there would be no continuity and we need continuity at the club. You cannot just splash the cash around as a replacement for players who have not performed this season.
- Based on tactics, Sir Alex won round one. He put in a side which would curtail our attack be it in the form of regular possession build up or counter attacks. There were no wingers deployed, hence United would not waste energy when going forward and do the job well by keeping the scoreline within limits should we score. United gave the ball to Real for most part of the game leaving us clueless with what to do with so much possession. Usually we have to win and battle for the ball which gives us the chance to use the opponents spaces and get the goals we need but Fergie put the tactics to best use.
- Besides De Gea, another stand-out United player was Phil Jones. He was handed the difficult task of marking Cristiano and he did so with absolute perfection. In the second half, Cristiano was on the end of two crosses but both times, Jones stuck to him and made an impressive block to help his defence and De Gea out.
- Getting to Real Madrid’s defence – Ramos was exceptionally poor. He failed to mark Danny Welbeck and gave him that extra yard which was needed to get the goal and that’s what United needed. Another example of poor defending on set pieces this season. Later, he and Arbeloa had a moment of miscommunication which resulted in a corner than easily keeping the ball and bringing possession back to Los Blancos. Then he almost got himself booked by needlessly shoving a United player which had the referee noticed, would have been a definite booking and a suspension for the next game. Ramos looked shaky, uncomfortable and not the wall he is on most occasions. Moving on to his partner – Varane. Varane had yet another great game against a tough opponent and he did well to keep Van Persie, Welbeck and Rooney at bay. One moment of hesitation and heart-in-mouth situation did occur when he brought down Evra from behind but the referee called it not a foul and let play continue. It was a touch and go sort of decision. If the foul had been called, Varane would have been sent off as he was the last man. Other than that, he had a stellar game. Over on the left, Coentrao did a good job as well. He had little to do in defence as United did not move forward from the flanks so he provided crosses, opportunities and brought out a great acrobatic save off De Gea from a Khedira cross.
- While the first half was fast and Real used the entire width of the pitch, the second half was an exact opposite. The attack and movement came more from the middle which was more comfortable for United as they could focus their attention on a few players than stretching themselves around their side of the park. Carrick and Jones did well to help out their defence when needed. In the first half, Rafael looked jaded and uncomfortable with Di Maria, Cristiano, Coentrao, Ozil all covering that side of the pitch and making life difficult for the Brazilian. But, in the second half, Real’s attack focused down the centre thereby easing the pressure on him and allowing him to settle into the game.
- One aspect of the game which I dislike getting the attention is the referee. Every time the referee is discussed, I cringe (including publicly announcing who the referee is going to be!). While I thought the referee had a decent evening with tough decisions to make, many fans did not well the same. United fans felt aggrieved with Varane not being sent off for a professional foul on Evra and then in the end, the final whistle being blown before United could take the corner. While both valid points, I don’t see the point of discussing the referee on a night when the game was good and United have the advantage after the first leg.
After the first leg, Real Madrid are not fully out of it but its going to be a battle. After the game Mourinho said,
“Everything open, very open for the second leg and as I was thinking it will go to the last-minute.
“They changed the way they play, they played a block. In the second half, Rio Ferdinand and Johnny Evans did not put one foot in our own half. They were waiting for a set-piece or a counter-attack to score a second goal. But they did well, they defended well. But the result is open and if you asked me percentage I don’t change one single number, 50-50.
“We can score more than one goal.”
United have the upper hand going into the second leg as they have the all important away goal. Moreover, we haven’t had the best away record this season but stats and history don’t mean much at times. Hope this is one of them.
Bit of stat: Real Madrid after drawing 1-1 at home in the first leg of a European tie, have lost on all four occasions.
What did you make of the game, the players and the tactics? What are Real’s chances now?