Since the draw for the last 16 of the Champions League back in December, there has been one match on the collective minds of the world's football fans. Most will agree that Manchester United and Real Madrid are, if not the two biggest, certainly two of the biggest clubs in world football. These games don't roll around all that often. The last time these two giants met was almost a decade ago, when it was a different Ronaldo making headlines as United were dumped out of the tournament by an Old Trafford hat-trick from the Brazilian wizard in a 6-5 aggregate win.
Prior to the game, the feeling among most United fans that I had spoken to was that, if the team could snatch an away goal, then going back to Old Trafford with a single goal deficit would be a satisfactory outcome. Having now witnessed the match, I can't help but feel that - happy with a 1-1 draw as I am - United could and possibly should, have come away with more.
Sir Alex would have gone in to this game knowing that his defence would be under intense pressure throughout. A team with just Ronaldo will ensure as much, but when you throw Ozil, Di Maria (who had an outstanding game), Khedira and Alonso into the mix, the attacking prowess is only enhanced. This expectation was duly met, but - with the exception of Rafael, who struggled in the first half, only to improve his game significantly in the second - the United defence stood firm. With the solid and imposing presence of Phil Jones ahead of them, and the magnificent De Gea - more on him in a moment - behind them, the goal was rarely threatened by anything more than long distance efforts. Jonny Evans in particular went a long way towards quietening his doubters after last night's performance.
De Gea was immense in goal, one particular save from a Coentrao strike in the first half that he was able to turn onto the post as it emerged through a sea of players, was quite simply one of the best saves you are ever likely to see. Those who have watched him closely over the past months will know that he is possibly one of the best shot stoppers in the world right now - a trait that was obvious for all to see as he made a triumphant return to Madrid - but he has started to become more than that. Yes, he is still vulnerable from crosses - quite frankly, do you really expect a goalkeeper to be the finished article at only 22 years of age? He has plenty of time to work on his small flaws - but the way that he was able to collect balls and push his saves into safe areas was the most significant improvement on display at the Bernabeu.
Phil Jones also stepped up to the plate. He was robust in the challenge without giving away too many fouls - I didn't think his shoulder charge was a penalty, though some may disagree, but these are at best very fine margins. He tracked his men well, and was calm on the ball, rarely conceding possession despite a willingness to hold on to the ball until a suitable outlet was available for the pass. With Carrick alongside him, there was a composure in the midfield that had perhaps been lacking during earlier performances this season.
At the other end of the field was Danny Welbeck. His goal was obviously significant, but his approach play was also delightful to behold. he seemed always able to find space with his first touch and his holding up of play and distribution was as fantastic as you might expect if you had seen many of his recent performances. If Danny can keep his performances at this level, he will no doubt go on to have a long and illustrious career with United.
Overall, despite a dip in quality for the second half, the game was a fantastic display of football that I was glad to have had the chance to enjoy. Madrid will feel that they perhaps ought to have created more clear cut chances, but that they didn't was more down to United's resilience than their own failings. Neither team will be too dissatisfied with the result, but if there is any advantage at this point, I would feel that it leant slightly in the direction of Manchester. Regardless of the outcome, I can hardly wait the 13 days for another enticing meeting between these two fantastic clubs.