Welbeck uses head to earn United vital away goal
Danny Welbeck shrugs off Sergio Ramos' attentions to head home Wayne Rooney's corner. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Real Madrid 1 Manchester United 1:It was an epic night and, by the end, Manchester United might be emboldened enough to reflect they have made the first decisive move. They will not want to push the idea they are now the favourites when they are still lacking the magic formula to subdue Cristiano Ronaldo, but this was an encouraging night for Alex Ferguson’s team that could conceivably have brought them more than just Daniel Welbeck’s goal.
They were subjected to some intense pressure from Jose Mourinho’s team. David de Gea put in the kind of performance that makes it so clear why United will tolerate his occasional lapses and with Ronaldo in this mood, there will always be dangers at Old Trafford in the return leg.
Ronaldo almost won it with a free-kick of ridiculous audacity in the final five minutes and his headed goal, 10 minutes after Welbeck had given United a wonderful start, sets up another marquee occasion for March 5th. Yet United will also leave with regrets after Robin van Persie, of all people, was wasteful with two opportunities in quick succession in the second half. Substitute Ryan Giggs also had the chance to put the Premier League leaders into a position of great strength. They will need to be more ruthless on their own ground. They will also need to think again when it comes to trying to stop Ronaldo.
Phil Jones was in midfield to provide extra cover for Rafael da Silva against Ronaldo. Wayne Rooney could also be seen tirelessly tracking back from the right side of attack. Ferguson, in other words, had three players under specific instructions to try to muzzle his old superstar.
Even then, there were still times when Ronaldo was a brutal opponent. Once again, he demonstrated to the watching world that a player at his level is not fazed by smothering tactics. Ronaldo has a rare ability to find space and United have been reminded now what a devastating finisher he can be.
Yet there were other moments that will offer United encouragement ahead of the return leg. Madrid’s vulnerability at crosses was not just evident for Welbeck’s goal. The same player also came close to scoring again after Van Persie’s left-wing cross five minutes after Ronaldo’s equaliser.
Diego Lopez does not have the same presence as the injured Iker Casillas and he looked a weak link here.
However, the more worrying aspect for Ferguson was the frequency with which Da Silva looked susceptible on the right side of defence. It was not just Ronaldo who menaced the youngest member of United’s back four. Mesut Ozil took the ball around him twice during those moments in the first half when virtually all of Madrid’s more incisive attacks originated on their left. Da Silva looked painfully raw at times and Ronaldo’s goal could be traced back to the Brazilian failing to get the ball clear.
From their next attack, Angel Di Maria whipped his cross into the penalty area for Ronaldo to show that, as well as all his ability running with the ball, he has a prodigious, almost old-fashioned ability to leap for crosses and stay in the air. Patrice Evra, the nearest opponent, could barely challenge and the header was expertly directed into the bottom corner.
Jonny Evans partnered Rio Ferdinand in a defence that was mightily indebted to De Gea’s full-length save, after five minutes, to turn Fabio Coentrao’s shot against the post.
Shinji Kagawa, Welbeck and Rooney, all behind Van Persie, played with great endeavour, with Kagawa always eager to run behind the Madrid defence. Yet Welbeck’s goal was so straightforward it brought a disbelieving Mourinho to the touchline to gesture his horror. Rooney’s corner went over Jones. It was too high for Van Persie, too. Welbeck was inside the six-yard area with Sergio Ramos challenging him for the ball. Varane was also in close proximity but Welbeck had the strength to hold off Ramos and flashed his header past Diego Lopez.
Both teams were going for it. De Gea saved another Coentrao effort with his feet, hacking the ball away from inside his right-hand post. Ronaldo’s free-kick dipped and swerved on to the roof of the net.
Then Rooney sent Van Persie clear and Diego Lopez tipped the shot on to the post. A minute later, Van Persie had an even better chance but scuffed his shot and Xabi Alonso cleared off the line. In stoppage time Diego Lopez denied him again and it summed up United’s determination to get the winner when they were so aggrieved the referee blew the final whistle before they could take the corner.