|photo by Claudio Gennari ..."Cogli l'attimo ferma il tempo"||via PhotoRee|
Without much exaggeration it was called the tie of the season, as Manchester United entered the lion's den Wednesday to face Real Madrid at the Santiago Beenabeu in an epic first leg clash of the Champions League knockout round. The pre game storylines were enough to make one's head whip around on a swivel: Cristiano Ronaldo's return, Jose Mourinho vs Sir Alex, Madrid vs Manchester and many more in the days and weeks leading up to the contest. But at 8:45pm on a Wednesday night in Madrid all the old stories were laid to rest and a new one waited to be written as the game kicked off.
It was all Madrid in the early going: the home side with the first threats of the night, but both Sammy Khedira and Angel Di Maria fired significantly wide of the mark. Fabio Coentrao was much closer to target as he banged it off the post and was unlucky not to open his account near the five minute mark -- surely creating early cause for concern on the visitors' bench. Also creating concern were the acres of space United left open on the pitch for the Madrillenos to run into -- all the better from which to menace David De Gea's goal.
Cristiano Ronaldo absolutely terrorized his ex-teammates in the early going, all fancy stop and go, move and shake, hit and run, reminding them who currently holds the title of the world's second best player. United were unable to keep the ball for more than a couple of passes, and were hard pressed to get the ball out of their own end, so dominant was the home side in the game's early going.
But against all odds it was United who struck first on the evening: Danny Welbeck with a shock glancing header, entirely against the run of play, and on only the Reds' second shot of the evening. Flicking free of Sergio Ramos as Wayne Rooney swung the ball in from the corner, Welbeck rose higher than anyone else and handed the visitors a much hoped for road goal near the game's 20 minute mark. If the goal was expected to shift the course of the contest, it didn't: although rattled, Los Blancos picked right back up where they left off and set out again on the attack.
And again it was Ronaldo at his menacing best, who looked the most real (and Real) threat. When his free kick slammed into none other than Robin Van Persie near the half hour make, it told all those fortunate enough to be at the Bernabeu all they needed to know about the visitors' defensive commitment for the evening. Committed or not, though, by the half hour mark the game was back on level terms: Ronaldo switching sides, and nodding his team back into the contest as he hung high over Patrice Evra for the equalizer.
Welbeck almost doubled his side's joy on 35 minutes, with only a timely intervention from Madrid 'keeper Diego Lopez stopping the Englishman's attempted toe poke from putting the visitors back into the lead. A free kick given away by Rafael on the edge of the box created yet another concern for the visitors' defense, and only a good non-call on a Phil Jones shoulder barge on Di Maria sustained the scoreline as Madrid swaggered forward near the interval.
Although both managers had reason to be pleased with the scoreline at halftime, it was United who came out acting as if Sir Alex had brandished the hair dryer to begin the second 45, whipping in crosses and testing the Madrid number one. Although the Reds appeared more composed, Real appeared just as determined as they had been in the first frame to impose their will on the contest, as De Gea was continually called into action by the two-headed monster of Ronaldo and Di Maria.
United battled away against not only the ostensible opponent on the night, but a referee, as well, who saw fouls only one way, conveniently ignoring a knock down of Welbeck as he steamed in on goal ahead of the final defender. Higuain replaced Benzema near the hour mark, as Mou sought to change the course of the match: United setting out the stall, sitting deep in defense and daring the home side to beat them through creativity. Coentrao almost did just that, but De Gea's quick feet parried the effort to safety to preserve the scoreline.
Sir Alex traded an ineffective Shinji Kagawa for Ryan Giggs just five minutes later, opting for the ageless Welshman's experience in midfield to help control the ball better. With twenty minutes left in the match, Sir Alex would have been relative pleased as his charges played disciplined defense, keeping the contest tight and looking for a late opportunity from which to strike -- concentration becoming paramount as the game eased into its final minutes.
Van Persie nearly handed his side the lead twice in the 72nd minute, and only Lopez's outstretched arm and Xabi Alonso's sliding goal line clearance stopped the visitors from their second tally of the evening. The late surge, combined with Welbeck's cramping form, caused Sir Alex to switch the forward for a wide man, with Antonio Valencia asked to join the fray. Luka Modric replaced Di Maria for the men in white as both sides grew twitchy.
A tired United side dropped increasingly deep on defense as Madrid piled on the pressure, with the corners beginning to pile up in favor of the home side -- one every eight minutes through the first 80 minutes. Mou added Pepe to the mix for Alonso in the final seven minutes, and Sir Alex countered with Anderson for Rooney -- both managers seeking to preserve their gains for the evening and live to fight another day.
Ronaldo beat a rooted De Gea with a late free kick, but the dip in the ball came moments too late: threat averted, the 86th minute effort sailed harmlessly just over the bar. But for some late playacting by Sergio Ramos and a close call at both ends, the evening's drama was over: the scoreline knotted at one, and both Managers with some thinking to do before the teams meet again.
This is Farlieonfootie wishing you a Happy Valentine's Day for February 14.