“I like playing the first leg at home,” Real Madrid coach José Mourinho insisted after Wednesday night’s 1-1 tie against Manchester United in the Bernabéu. “That way you know what you have to do away from home. We can score at Old Trafford. Many teams have done so at Old Trafford this season and no team with our attacking quality has played there." There was no way the Madrid boss was going to admit that a score-draw in Madrid meant advantage United after a frustrating night for Real’s offense, which was mainly reduced to taking potshots from outside the visiting team’s area. And it is tribute to the warm relations between Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson that the United manager would later agree with his rival’s assessment that the round-of-16 match was now poised at 50-50.
Mourinho also showed an unusual degree of press-room restraint when asked about Manchester United’s approach to the first leg: “I cannot criticize,” he repeated, before expressing his confidence that “British culture” would not allow United’s players to loiter so willingly in front of their own box in the return match. And, yes, Mourinho was fair in pointing out that the English team had several good chances to win the game near the end.
The good news for Ferguson, who has admitted to being haunted by a 2000 home defeat to Real for which he blames his own tactics, is that this time his team has an away goal to act as a buffer against fear of Madrid’s counterattacking strength. In that quarterfinal 13 years ago, the first leg in the Bernabéu had remained scoreless, doubling the impact of Real´s opening goal at Old Trafford. “We’d have taken a 1-1 before the game,” the Scot said on Wednesday night, adding that he will make a “more positive team selection” on March 5.
Many teams have scored at Old Trafford this season and none with our attacking quality has played there"
Madrid began the game with real intent, hunting down the ball high up the field and rapidly turning possession into shooting opportunities, the trademark style of the Mourinho-Cristiano Ronaldo era. True, Ferguson had put out a cautious line-up with defender Phil Jones selected as a holding midfielder, although he was not assigned to man-mark Ronaldo as had been anticipated. United was unable to play the ball out with any control, but longer passes over the top brought encouragement, with Wayne Rooney and the impressive Danny Welbeck running into the channels from where they gave both Real full backs a torrid time, albeit in fits and starts. It was Welbeck who gave United a 20th-minute lead, nodding in an inswinging corner from Rooney.
The large contingent of United fans were now winning the volume war and the following period of the match suggested that a classic could be afoot. Welbeck was inches from scoring again, stretching to make contact with a cross from the left. But it was a prodigious leap and header from Ronaldo that leveled the score on the half-hour mark, the prolific forward sneaking to the far post and beating Patrice Evra to what looked like little more than a regulation cross from Ángel di María. Ferguson would later recall a similar aerial effort that helped Manchester United beat AC Milan on another European night before the Portuguese star joined Real Madrid in the world’s most expensive transfer deal. “At first I blamed Evra but then I saw the replay and Cristiano’s knee was up around his head. I felt pretty stupid,” he told reporters.
The second half was considerably less dynamic. Real camped in the United half, but a red pack of tacklers descended on whoever was in possession. Ronaldo barely threatened and Gonzalo Higuaín saw even less of the ball than the substituted Karim Benzema. When a chink of light opened for Real, David de Gea shone in the visitor’s goal, with an acrobatic save with his feet from Fabio Coentrão one for the young Spanish keeper’s scrapbook. Then came United’s final flurry in which Robin Van Persie came close on three occasions. Twice Diego López saved powerful shots, one of which cannoned off the crossbar, but the Dutchman mis-hit the best chance of them all after Xabi Alonso and López had hesitated in the penalty area.