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Feb 13, 2013

United building from the back

Despite an enthralling tie that reflected teams of the highest quality and remains enticingly on edge, Jose Mourinho was markedly unmoved. "Nothing new, not a surprise," was his post-match reaction.

• Blog: United v Madrid on knife edge
• Hunter: De Gea master class

Given the Portuguese's notorious penchant for "mind games" - which Alex Ferguson himself flagged before this match - it's genuinely difficult to detach what the Real Madrid manager actually felt from any mischievous attempts to psychologically influence the tie.

Ultimately, he's going to need something different for the return. In the second leg at Old Trafford, it is Real who have to chase the game and that is a consequence of a number of elements that were certainly new departures for this campaign at very least.

Most conspicuously, there was the fact that one of the most prolific attacks in Europe over the last two seasons couldn't hurt United as much as the likes of Fulham and Reading in the last few months. Indeed, given how shambolic the Old Trafford side's defence had appeared at various points earlier this season, the scale of their improvement is as impressive as it is remarkable.

In Madrid, the trio of Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and David De Gea put in performances that were close to perfection. Indeed, they were probably the most influential players on the Bernabeu pitch and surpassed many of their notional superiors. That is not to say their quality was a surprise but, rather, that they illustrated such maturity in such a momentous game at such a young age. In other words, the tie forced them to grow up. Certainly, Jones stood up to Cristiano Ronaldo; Evans held steady and De Gea proved near unbeatable other than for a header of unstoppable quality.

All of that, though, has led to the biggest departure of all: for the first time in five ties against either Mourinho or Real Madrid during his time as Manchester United manager, Ferguson has an advantage after the first leg. In the return, it is the opposition that start with it all to do. For him, the score can remain the same.

The reason for that, of course, is that the Old Trafford boss has very rarely approached such big games - and especially not European ties - in anything like a routine manner. How often, for example, has he played what would generally be perceived to be his best XI? Rarely, and he certainly didn't at the Bernabeu on Wednesday either.

But, whereas in previous matches Ferguson has seemingly been punished for unnecessarily over-thinking - not least the 0-0 at this same stadium in 2000 - this time he seemed to get the balance just right.

United were tight enough to prevent a searing Real counter-attack getting behind them too often, but still adventurous enough to regularly trouble Mourinho's side. It resulted in a 1-1 that tilts the tie in United's favour.

Of course, that is not the whole story. And, as with all overriding narratives, there are nuances within them that can skew and distort things. Most notably, as assured as many of United's defenders were, it wasn't a completely perfect defensive performance as a unit.

Throughout the game, and especially in the first 30 minutes, there were extended periods when Real's runs and riotously good touches left United on the verge of unravelling. That, obviously, explains exactly why De Gea had so many good saves to make. But even the goalkeeper had Jones to thank for a frantic late clearance while Ronaldo lurked.

In the first half, most of that danger came through the left as the exquisite Mesut Ozil regularly exposed Rafael. The right-back looked the weakest link and it seemed Real specifically targeted him but that still must be put in a certain context. The Brazilian, after all, would have spent the last few weeks - at least since the Tottenham Hotspur game in which he marshalled Gareth Bale so well - preparing to face Ronaldo, who United's coaches would have had him well briefed on.

Instead, it was Ozil that went outside and the Portuguese that went inside. As Gary Neville said on the eve of the game, Ronaldo will often drift from his normal role in order to find positions and areas of maximum opportunity and he certainly did that, outjumping one of the smallest players on the pitch in Patrice Evra to plunder a superb equaliser.

Even then, though, the manner in which Real eventually seemed to run of steam, as well as belief, reflected the problems they've had this season. For all the justified fame of Mourinho's motivational techniques, it's still difficult for even a manager of his calibre to fully focus and rouse the team from their everyday problems. And United, to be fair, stood up long enough and resiliently enough to remind the home side of those problems.

Indeed, they also expertly exposed Real's weaknesses at the other end. As well as the excellent Danny Welbeck took his goal, you would not have seen three outfield players and the goalkeeper stand about so idly in any of Mourinho's backlines at FC Porto, Chelsea or Inter.

If attacks win games but defences win titles like this, it may yet prove Real's undoing. Indeed, for all that Angel Di Maria, Ronaldo and Ozil went close, Mourinho was lucky that Robin van Persie squandered two fine chances and Ryan Giggs and Welbeck two others.

As a consequence, it was probably a fair result. And it means, for the second leg and in order to keep Real's ambition of a perfect 10th Champions League alive, Mourinho is going to have to come up with something new himself.

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