De Gea grows up in biggest stage

Sir Alex Ferguson gambled Wednesday night – and won. Manchester United bravely fielded an attacking lineup against a fierce Real Madrid side and came away with a precious away goal in their 1-1 tie. United now head back to Old Trafford in the driver’s seat: a scoreless draw would be enough to see them into the Champions League quarterfinals.

United seized the lead early thanks to a goal from Danny Welbeck, and although Cristiano Ronaldo headed Madrid level soon after, United – and especially goalkeeper David de Gea – emerged with credit from a second half that saw Jose Mourinho’s star-filled side huff and puff, but fail to land the final blow.

"This is a difficult place to come to," said the United boss. "Their home record is outstanding. I was a bit disappointed at how deep we defended in the first half. Fortunately David de Gea was excellent, with 3 or 4 excellent saves in the game.

”We kept making chances, hopefully we do not regret not taking more. The away goal is important, but nothing is decided yet. Real are a fantastic counter attacking team and nothing has been decided.”

Before the game, Ferguson had talked about Robin van Persie’s goals and Wayne Rooney’s adaptability in attack. Yet, the unheralded attacker in red was young Welbeck, who headed his side in front – from Rooney’s corner assist – after only 20 minutes. In fact, United’s youth was a major storyline as the stars – de Gea, Rafael, Phil Jones, Shinji Kagawa and Welbeck – are all 22 or younger.

Rooney, an old man of sorts at 27 in this side, was charged with protection as much as attacking. He was set to backstop Rafael and protect against the attentions of a former teammate, the always dangerous Cristiano Ronaldo. That plan didn’t work as well for Ferguson with Ronaldo – as well as Fabio Coentrao and Mesut Ozil – tormenting the Brazilian throughout the first half.

Madrid’s equalizer came from Rafael’s flank. Angel di Maria, who had an excellent game, perhaps stung by Mourinho having lately dropped him for disciplinary reasons, pinged over a fine cross and Ronaldo leapt like a salmon to bulge the net with a towering header. The goal showed the fluidity of Madrid’s attack, as well as the sheer athleticism and star quality Ronaldo possesses.

The mood inside the Santiago Bernabeu immediately lifted. 90,000 white plastic flags fluttered and chants of “Cristiano, Cristiano” rang out. When United’s traveling contingent answered with “sit down Mourinho,” they were drowned out by whistles from everywhere else.

The roars for a penalty were louder when the energetic di Maria went to the ground inside the area under pressure from Jones. De Gea, who had been lucky early when flapping at two crosses, got grudging applause from his fellow-countrymen for a fine stop from Ozil.

This gave de Gea the confidence to show his stuff. First, a Ronaldo 20-yarder was gathered at the second attempt followed by a di Maria shot from further out that brought better handling and good fortune while the next effort fizzled wide. His best stop yet came from Coentrao, after Rooney had neglected his defensive duties.

United began to be content to hold what it had, and Rafael looked happier with Jones and Michael Carrick’s defensive midfield shield mostly keeping Madrid at bay. A frustrated Mourinho reacted by switching center forwards, with Gonzalo Higuain replacing the crowded-out Karim Benzema.

Madrid themselves are happier as a counter-attacking side, and grumbles began to spread around the stadium as the stalemate continued. Rio Ferdinand – United’s starting veteran – looked sharp at the near post to thwart Ronaldo. Ferguson then opted for more experience, replacing a bypassed Kagawa with Ryan Giggs, 39, coming on for his 133rd Champions League outing.

Giggs tried to calm things down by bringing his side into the game. Van Persie had looked lost alone up front for long periods, but twice in a minute he could have won it. Rooney’s powerful drive was touched onto the bar by Diego Lopez, then Xabi Alonso scrambled after the Dutchman’s rebound nearly crossed the line when the Madrid offside trap and keeper had both been beaten.

Mourinho also made his tactical switch, with Luka Modric’s brain replacing di Maria’s hard running. It changed little though, and as the game entered its last 15 minutes, the Bernabeu was quiet again as nerves began to show. A mad scramble in the United area ended with de Gea gratefully clutching a Sami Khedira shot. The keeper was again happy to see Ronaldo’s free kick land on top of, not inside, his net.

Madrid’s manager remained confident after the match, going so far to say that the Merengues hold a mental edge over the Premier League counterparts before their scheduled second leg next month.

“When you play the second game away, you know what you need," said Mourinho. "You know how to play your game, without any doubts. We are going to Old Trafford now, if United score first we have to score. If we score first we are ahead. It is easy to understand. We know what we have to do.”

The day’s other game was just as thrilling. Borussia Dortmund snatched two away goals in a 2-2 draw at Shakhtar Donetsk in a snazzy show that belied the game’s billing as an undercard.

The German visitors controlled the game early, perhaps to be expected given that Shakhtar hadn’t played a competitive game in 70 days, courtesy of the Ukrainian league’s 3-month winter break. But when Dortmund failed to take an early lead, Shakhtar found its rhythm in the latter part of the second half, resulting in a wide open game with two skillful teams running at each other at full bore.

In the 30th minute, Shakhtar went ahead when captain Dario Srna whipped his hard free kick over the bar and past Roman Weidenfeller, who looked unconvincing in trying to save it. Four minutes before halftime, Dortmund equalized when Robert Lewandowski took a nice touch on a Mario Gotze cross, whiffed his shot but had enough space to recover and fire in on his second try.

If the game tightened up somewhat in the second half, the action remained appealing, as Dortmund’s clockwork passing and Shakhtar’s crafty Brazilians matched up well. One of those Brazilian imports, Douglas Costa, snuck onto a long, high ball over the top in the 68th to volley past Weidenfeller.

Mats Hummels would draw the Germans level late, when he charged onto the end of a corner from Marcel Schmeltzer to score in the 87th. Expect another spectacle when these teams meet again.

FOX Soccer’s Leander Schaerlaeckens contributed to this report.