Sir Alex Ferguson’s men earned a 1-1 draw at Real Madrid on Wednesday in a thrilling encounter to set up a tantalising second leg on March 5 in the Champions League last 16 tie
By Greg Stobart in Madrid
As the Real Madrid supporters filed out of the Santiago Bernabeu after an enthralling night of football, it was left for the 4,000 Manchester United fans housed high up in the north end to have the final say.
‘We’re going to Wembley!’ they roared as they set their sights on a place in the Champions League final in London after earning a 1-1 draw from the first leg of their last 16 tie against Cristiano Ronaldo and Co here.
This was billed as the tie of the round, not least by the two managers as Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson waxed lyrical about the history, fanbase and footballing traditions of the clubs, with United three-time European champions and Real Madrid targeting an historic tenth continental triumph.
The palpable sense of expectation was evident from the moment you set foot in the Spanish capital on Wednesday as thousands of United fans took over the city’s many squares and bars, knowing this was a game not to be missed.
And it delivered. While the match finished 1-1, the sides could easily have shared eight goals between them as both teams displayed their attacking incision while at the same time looking vulnerable at the back.
Danny Welbeck opened the scoring for United against the run of play as he headed home from a corner before Ronaldo – who else? – equalised with a wonderful leap and header of his own 10 minutes later.
As one attack pulsed after another, it was a miracle that there were not more goals in the Bernabeu, which was a cauldron of noise as the Spanish giants ramped up the atmosphere by giving each fan a flag.
Fabio Coentrao hit the post for the hosts while David De Gea came of age in the United goal by making a series of stunning saves to deny Madrid and defy his critics.
But United always looked a threat at the other end, Welbeck glancing a volley just wide and Robin van Persie coming agonisingly close three times after the break – first hitting the crossbar, then seeing a scuffed effort cleared off the line by Xabi Alonso before, late on, Diego Lopez produced a fine stop from the Dutchman’s drilled shot.
The message coming from virtually everyone after the game was: it is 50-50, the tie is still firmly in the balance.
It is certainly perfectly set up for the second leg at Old Trafford on March 5 which, if anything, promises to be an even more spectacular occasion.
If anything, United will go into the return as slight favourites having scored a crucial away goal here and with home advantage on their side as they target a place in the quarter-finals.
Real Madrid will have to score in Manchester and, of course, they have the firepower to do it as Ronaldo heads back to Old Trafford in the form of his life having already scored 37 goals this season.
It will be a clash befitting of any stage, just as it was here in a breathtaking game of speed, movement, panache and in the case of the United defenders sheer bloody-mindedness.
It is only half-time as Real Madrid and Manchester United chase a place in the last eight and, ultimately, European glory at Wembley in May, but it was a stunning spectacle and March 5 at Old Trafford could be even better.
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