Jones hosts coming-of-age party in United's hit-and-run raid
The stars of Manchester United’s courageous hit-and-run raid on Real Madrid – Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck, David de Gea and Jonny Evans – will go down in footballing lore for using the cathedral of the Bernabeu as the venue for their coming-of-age party.
They were the spine – goalkeeper, central defender, defensive midfielder and forward – who were handed great responsibility in the Champions League last-16 first leg by Alex Ferguson.
They were to blunt Madrid’s attacking forces of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Angel Di Maria and Mesut Ozil while also nabbing an away goal, which Welbeck did with his 20th-minute header.
Jones is 20, Welbeck and De Gea are 22 while Evans at 25 also falls into the emerging-player category as he begins to usurp the ageing Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic as Ferguson’s first-choice centre-back.
Jones was immense. He is still feeling his way back after the serious knee and back problems that prevented him starting the season until late November but Ferguson dropped Tom Cleverley to hand Jones the task of being United’s prime midfield shield. In this role his most obvious duty was to help shackle Ronaldo as the Portuguese wandered across the Bernabeu turf and Jones turned in a blurring display of blocking, tackling and closing down that never waned.
In the first minute of added time, he twice stopped Ronaldo when the former United forward appeared certain to score his second goal and give Madrid the 2-1 win that would have tilted the tie their way. Jones, as is expected of all United players, was modest regarding this contribution, saying: “It wasn’t just about that, all over the pitch we were superb defensively.”
He had not finished with the twin blocks on Ronaldo: it was his lofted pass to Robin van Persie that nearly set up United’s own late winner, with the striker’s shot saved by Diego Lopez. Jones is a born leader. In Vidic’s absence Patrice Evra was captain but this was a game in which Jones announced his candidacy as Ferguson’s long-term on-field lieutenant. An illustration came early on when he crashed into a tackle on Ronaldo and Michael Carrick was tartly informed to stop congratulating him and get over to the right touchline to continue mucking in.
“At 20 years of age, he is going to be a fantastic player, I am sure about that. He had a knee operation so we are managing it, taking time, and he won’t play every week. But whether he plays midfield or centre-back it doesn’t bother him and he gives me great options,” said Ferguson, who informed him well in advance of his inclusion. “The gaffer told me a few days ago,” said Jones.
For Welbeck this was a particularly satisfying outing. It was only his second goal in 29 United appearances, with Van Persie’s blistering debut season and Javier Hernandez’s renaissance having limited his game time. But as Welbeck has shown for England, he is the man for the big occasion.
Ferguson said: “Along with Rooney we decided to do something different tactically and play them narrower to shut off the midfield so it was a job on a tactical basis that he did well.”
The United manager trusted Welbeck not only to offer a greater attacking threat than Hernandez, but also his maturity to play wide left and help stymie Ronaldo, Di Maria and company. “He was marvellous. Pity he got cramp at the end of the game but he worked so hard. They found it difficult to handle him.”
Ryan Giggs, who has seen countless players pass through the gates of Old Trafford, was equally impressed. “Obviously as a forward he wants to score goals but he came up with the goods. I thought all night he created problems for them and was a real handful.”