MADRID, Spain, February 14 – “It is your night,” ran the headline of Madrid sports daily Marca next to a giant picture of Cristiano Ronaldo ahead of the star’s first encounter with Manchester United, the club he left three and a half years ago.
Ronaldo, almost inevitably, did have his moment as he soared above a stranded Patrice Evra at the back post to majestically head home his seventh Champions League goal in as many games this season.
But on a pitch filled with stellar attacking talent, it was a Spanish goalkeeper making a return of his own, to his home city, who was the star of the show as the Champions League tie ended 1-1.
David De Gea had only ever suffered heartbreak, as most Atletico Madrid keepers do, against Real Madrid in his time with Real’s city rivals.
But just five minutes into the widely-anticipated Champions League last-16 tie he diverted Fabio Coentrao’s goalbound effort onto the post to keep United from sinking under an early Madrid storm.
Once that initial burst had been weathered, it was they who found the net first as the Spanish champions’ Achilles heel for the past two seasons, defending set-pieces, was again exposed as Danny Welbeck directed Wayne Rooney’s corner into the net.
Ten minutes later the moment United feared duly arrived as Ronaldo hung in the air a good three feet above his former French colleague to glance in a header so accurate even De Gea couldn’t reach it.
With the tide now turned again, Madrid charged forward.
Mesut Ozil, so key in Los Blancos’ revival in recent weeks, starting to find the space between the lines in which he dazzles and with one right-footed drive forced De Gea into another fine save.
The hosts continued to buzz around the pitch at the start of the second period with great fervour, this time with Angel di Maria to the fore as the Argentine tested De Gea’s impeccable handling before pulling another effort just wide that would surely have had the keeper beaten.
Coentrao, the man who has just one goal in his whole Real Madrid career, was then left wondering how he didn’t have two for the night as De Gea stretched out a long gangly leg to unconventionally turn away the Portuguese full-back’s back-post effort from Sami Khedira’s cross.
However, despite the fuss made over United having to play 18 hours later than their hosts at the weekend, it was the visitors who will feel they should have taken an advantage back to Old Trafford in three weeks’ time after three Robin Van Persie chances in the final quarter.
The Dutchman was unlucky with his first opportunity as a rasping angled right-footed shot came back off the crossbar.
But there was no excuse when his second fell perfectly onto his favoured left and his weak mishit volley was retrieved just in front of his own goalline by a relieved Xabi Alonso who had allowed a long-ball to drop into Van Persie’s path.
Ronaldo continued to try and make things happen as he saw an audacious free-kick drop onto the roof of De Gea’s net, but Jose Mourinho’s introduction of Gonzalo Higuain and Luka Modric for Karim Benzema and Di Maria respectively left Madrid congested in midfield and toothless up front.
And so it was left to Van Persie to try and land the final punch of an enthralling first-leg in stoppage time only for Diego Lopez to turn the ball behind for a corner.
Both managers were content afterwards in knowing there is still a long way to go in deciding who will progress.
“It’s still 50-50 and I think it will go down to the last minute,” said Mourinho.
Alex Ferguson, meanwhile, went as far as to say he thinks Madrid will score at Old Trafford.
With all eight of Madrid’s defeats this season having come on the road though, United can return to Manchester confident that the hardest part of the job has been done.