It was billed as the “acid test” by Sir Alex Ferguson, the trip to Madrid was a time for boys to step up and become men and a trio of United’s fresher-faced employees did not disappoint.
Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck and the much-maligned David De Gea, all produced performances that were befitting of the occasion and of Manchester United. Ferguson’s inclusion of Welbeck and Jones in particular, in spite of their recent good form, was a decision that could have back-fired.
Welbeck selected ahead of the reliable Antonio Valencia, proved that he could not only match the Ecuadorian’s work rate, but that his wiry movement can be effective against top class opponents. His headed opening goal, coupled with bullishness and trickery on the flanks will have left few fans questioning whether he is still true Manchester United material.
Indeed Welbeck had much more forward impact than Wayne Rooney whose diligent display saw him rarely rewarded with a sight of goal.
Jones meanwhile, in undoubtedly the biggest game of his life (man-marking Marouane Fellaini is one thing, halting the interchanging trio of Ronaldo, Ozil and Di Maria is quite another) also impressed. Unfazed by a daunting challenge to say the least, Jones knuckled down and disrupted many a Madrid attack, contributing to the home side’s apparent loss of stride in the second half. There is a certain persona required to play in game and for clubs of this stature. Judging by Jones’ assured night’s work, games of this nature seem more likely to become a career norm rather than a career highlight.
De Gea looked more than comfortable back on home soil, making a string of saves that would’ve no doubt received much more praise had they been made by the other Manchester club’s goalkeeper. Just how a long a night it would have been for United had De Gea not tipped Fabio Coentrao’s early drive on to the post, remains to be seen, but it was nonetheless a timely reminder of the negligence of this calamitous reputation that has been unfairly pinned on the young goalkeeper.
Not every United player passed the test quite so convincingly. Rafael da Silva was routinely outfoxed down the right in the first half as Real’s forwards darted away from a series of hap-hazard challenges by the Brazilian. For all his composure on the ball, a key trait of any modern full-back; Rafael must quell the impetuous side of his game if he is to become the top-class defender United are hoping for.
In Summary, Ferguson will be pleased with his team’s defensive doggedness. The way in which Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans reduced Karim Benzema and then Gonzalo Higuain to relative anonymity, must have pleased him, while United’s late chances showed that there are flaws to be exploited in the Real Madrid rearguard.
Although Jose Mourinho’s team will arrive at Old Trafford with unflinching belief, United have stood toe-to-toe with Real and not been found wanting. They came. They saw. But will United ultimately conquer?
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