LIAM MACKEY: Finely poised ahead of Ronaldo’s return

Given the feverish intensity of the media build-up to last night in the Santiago Bernabeu, it would have taken something of the order of Brazil beating Italy in the 1970 World Cup final for this match to have fully lived up to its extravagant billing.

But, if hardly one for the ages, Real Madrid and Manchester United are to be commended for serving up an open, engaging game of football that, especially in a pulsating first half, had little of the caginess one might expect when two heavyweights clash and the fear of shipping the killer punch outweighs the determination to land it.

Of course, the longer the game went on, the more that consideration came into play because, as Jose Mourihno and Alex Ferguson needed no reminding, this was, after all, only the first leg of a round of 16 tie, even if Sky Sports — with their images of the United squad out taking a stroll in the Madrid sunshine broadcast live as early as midday — seemed intent on bringing us back to those long ago days when the dear old FA Cup final was an all-day event.

Still, right from the start, the watching 200 million couldn’t claim they were short-changed by the action on the pitch, as Real Madrid came out of the traps with such pace and purpose that, before very long, the United faithful must have feared that the ‘perfect match’ could turn into a perfect mismatch.

Ronaldo was clearly up for it from word go and, just five minutes in, when he got one on one with Rafael for the first time, he left the full-back dizzy before pulling a ball back across the face of goal which, after it was deflected into the path of Coentrao, required a flying finger-tip save from oft-maligned David de Gea onto the post to keep United’s goal intact.

But all the attacking flair in the world counts for nought if a team doesn’t take care of basic business at the back.

You see it so often in football: the opposition, especially away from home, soaking up a sustained pressure and then making the most of a rare sortie up the other end.

Invariably too, it’s a set-piece which proves key to turning adversity into strength but that’s not to absolve Madrid of the shockingly amateurish defending which allowed Danny Welbeck, without having to work exceptionally hard to create the chance, to get his head onto Wayne Rooney’s corner and give United an unlikely lead.

But you couldn’t say there was anything similarly routine about the game’s second headed goal as, cometh the half-hour, cometh the man, with Ronaldo painfully reminding his former employers that, when required, he can ascend that stairway to heaven, the former United man then almost hovering at the zenith before flexing his neck muscles to leave De Gea grasping thin air.

Level at the break but having conceded that potentially vital away goal, it looked like Madrid needed to start the second half as they had begun the first but, after Angel Di Mario had offered a warning shot which flew just wide of De Gea’s post, the home side’s firepower began to be doused by a suffocating red blanket.

Up until he shook the roof — but not the ceiling — of United’s goal with a late, trademark free-kick, Ronaldo simply couldn’t replicate his high energy performance of the first half as United got all their bodies behind the ball and, with their energy levels dropping, Madrid were obliged to play a more patient, probing kind of football. And, as the La Liga table shows, Barcelona are so much more comfortable and convincing doing that.

On those occasions when the massed red defence was breached, De Gea left no one in any doubt about his abilities as a shot-stopper, even if questions will continue to be asked about his shortcomings when it comes to dominating his box.

But if Madrid ended up frustrated by their failure to make the most of their dominant possession, then they should find some consolation in the fact that, but for Robin van Persie uncharacteristically misplacing his shooting boots, United might conceivably have nicked this by a goal or even two.

That would have left Mourinho looking even more glum than he was at the end but then, such is his obvious unhappiness in the Spanish capital, even a four-goal advantage going to Old Trafford probably wouldn’t have been enough to have dancing along the touchline.

Instead, after a hard-working, disciplined, almost textbook away performance, it’s advantage Fergie but, with everything still to play for in the tie — and Ronnie’s return still to come — expect hype and hysteria to rhyme all over again when the action shifts to the Theatre of Dreams.

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