Two goals from Ashley Young led Manchester United past Real Madrid 3-1 and into Monday night’s International Champions Cup Final in Miami (live, FOX Sports 1, 7:30 p.m. ET). There, they will face their arch-rivals, Liverpool, who qualified as Group B winners before their match against AC Milan, courtesy of Olympiakos’ penalty shootout win over Manchester City earlier in the day.
Saturday's game at the Big House lived up to its billing, setting a new record for attendance at a soccer game in America 109,318 fans crammed into Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. With more red and scarlet on display than this stadium has ever seen, goals from Young and Mexico star Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez sent the overwhelmingly pro-United crowd into ecstasy. Real lived up to their part as well, as Gareth Bale earned and converted a penalty for the reigning European champions. Cristiano Ronaldo also made a late and unexpected cameo, but failed to score.
United are a few weeks into Louis van Gaal’s reign as manager now but his influence has been immediate and considerable. Last season was something of a disaster for the storied club, as they tumbled far from contention under David Moyes, who had succeeded a living legend in the long-serving Sir Alex Ferguson. But by beating Real, they remained perfect in the International Champions Cup, having previously beaten AS Roma and bested Inter Milan in a penalty shootout.
As has quickly become a staple under van Gaal, United pressed high and hard and pinned Madrid back early. That began yielding chances almost immediately. Darren Fletcher pulled a shot wide following a corner in the 14th minute. And not seven minutes later, United went ahead. In the sort of swashbuckling move simply never seen from this team last season, Fletcher started the move by zipping the ball to Rooney. He returned it via a back-heel. Fletcher then squared for Danny Welbeck, who laid off for Young. The latter beat goalkeeper Iker Casillas with a crisp shot to the near post.
Against the run of play, Real equalized in the 26th minute. Bale turned the corner on rookie defender Michael Keane, for the first of several times throughout the game, and let the defender drag him down once he entered the penalty area. The Welshman in Spanish service coolly put the freebie away.
But before the half was up, United restored the lead they had rightfully earned. Young, still lingering out on the left, whipped in a cross for Rooney. The forward attempted to head the ball but couldn’t quite reach it. His move nevertheless fooled Casillas, who moved towards Rooney as the ball sailed over them, and it bounced in at the far post.
The Spaniards, who won the inaugural edition of this tournament last year, took control as the second half kicked off, finding space on the wings and between the lines. Bale got by Keane, but Isco’s shot was deflected and saved by David de Gea. Their assault continued as Bale sent a trademark knuckling free kick at goalkeeper de Gea’s near post from a long way out, which only just went wide. Even without star forward Ronaldo, Real begun to knock heavily on the door.
But Hernandez, who had come on as a substitute, threatened to put the game away at the other end. In the 71st minute, the excellent Shinji Kagawa, also a sub, dinked a deft little ball over the top for the striker, but he poked his finish right at Casillas. United then saw three shots fail to go in in short succession, as two were blocked and one sailed over.
But then, at length, Hernandez put the game away. Kagawa dispatched another superb ball to the far post where Hernandez daringly headed past Casillas, putting his face in great peril.
That more or less ended the game, and while it is still the preseason, there is a sense that United’s off-year last season might have been an aberration. Despite facing off against a Real side missing Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos and new $107 million-recruit James Rodriguez, and not having to square off against their former star until the 74th minute, United do have their swagger back. They may well reclaim their place among Europe’s elite this year.