1. Evans justified his place in the starting XI
I, like many, expected Vidic to start alongside Ferdinand at the Bernabéu; his experience alone warranted a place in the staring XI – especially in a game of such magnitude. Listening to Sir Alex ahead of kick-off, though, it made sense to start Evans ahead of him. The boss has to choose games for Vidic wisely as he is still managing his come-back from the knee injury that kept him sidelined for nearly a year; the game against Everton simply suited the Serbian more.
There are many people – United fans included – that don’t rate Evans. Clearly these people only manage to catch the fifteen minute Match of the Day highlights each week and are yet to see him play live, but I suppose each to their own. The Northern Irishman was simply faultless on Wednesday night; his partnership with Ferdinand was solid and he was concentrated throughout the whole ninety-minutes. Already an established member of the first team at 25, he’ll only get better with age.
2. In David we trust
Being a young player at Manchester United, games against teams like Real Madrid either make you or break you. For David de Gea on Wednesday night, it was certainly the former. To say he’s received stick since signing from Atlético Madrid eighteen months ago would be the understatement of the century. There has been an agenda against the young Spaniard ever since he made his debut in the 2011 Community Shield, with the media highlighting every mistake and turning it into a back-page headline. He answered his critics emphatically in his home town on Wednesday, however, by putting in a man of the match winning performance. Barring a couple of nervy first-half punches, he was fantastic; we couldn’t have asked for more. The question now, though, is: can he build on it? The talent and potential has always been there, it’s now time for consistency. Maybe what de Gea needs is a championship medal – it’ll do his confidence the world of good. Couple that with natural physical progression over the next year or two and we’ll have a genuine world class ‘keeper within our ranks once again. For those who still aren’t convinced: Please just give him time, he’ll not disappoint.
3. Welbeck’s proving a versatile member of the squad
There are a number of United fans who refuse to accept Danny Welbeck as a player good enough to play for Manchester United, despite his age. He’ll never be a prolific scorer and he perhaps cannot be trusted to lead the line, but if he’s proved something over the last couple of months, it’s that he’s a manager’s dream. Sir Alex can’t always guarantee the Englishman games in his preferred role [as a striker], but it seems the Manchester-born attacker is more than happy to sacrifice his wishes for the good of the team – and it’s benefiting all parties: The player is getting more game-time; the boss is getting the best out of a player by experimenting with his position; and the fans are now watching yet another product of our infamous youth set-up finally start to fulfil his potential. He grabbed his chance against Real Madrid in midweek and really impressed. He could so easily have crumbled under the pressure being a 22-year-old playing in one of Europe’s toughest arenas. Instead, he rose to the occasion and showed just how versatile he is.
I hear fans bemoan Danny’s ability week in, week out. What they fail to realise is for every Robin van Persie you need a Danny Welbeck. Home-grown players are always going to be given more time to prove their worth in the first team at Manchester United, it’s how it’s always been. The day we start discarding players like Danny Welbeck will be the day we start to lose our identity.
4. Real are probably just as happy as we are with that result
If you’d have offered us United fans a score draw prior to kick off, we’d have bitten your hand off, so in hindsight a 1-1 draw is an excellent result. Real had their chances and we were hanging on at times, but make no mistake about it, that was a terrific performance. The majority of the post-match talk seems to suggest we have the upper hand. With an away goal and a second leg at home to come you’d be hard pushed to argue with that. But to prevent Madrid from scoring at Old Trafford is a huge ask – they’ve scored at least once in every Champions League game away from home under Mourinho. With that in mind you’d have to say that they’ll come to Old Trafford confident of scoring.
When it comes to counter-attacking football, there’s no better team in the world than Real Madrid. Mourinho’s men will be confident of progressing, so we’ll have to be at our best if we want to progress ourselves. How we’ll line-up is what’s occupying my mind. Will Sir Alex mirror the first-leg and sacrifice natural wingers to help nullify their threat from wide positions? Probably not. We’re at home and cannot afford to invite the Spaniards onto us. At the same time, we have to be mindful of their counter-attacking ability. A tough dilemma then for Sir Alex in terms of team selection, but one I’m sure he’s relishing.
My predicted line-up for the second leg:
De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Welbeck, Carrick, Cleverley, Nani, Rooney; Van Persie.
I’m not going to be naïve and suggest we’ll line-up in a 4-4-2 formation – Real would outnumber us in midfield. I think we’ll be more or less set-up as a 4-5-1, with Rooney playing in and around Alonso and Khedira. I’ve gone for Cleverley over Jones, but in all fairness it could be either one of the two alongside Carrick. It all depends on how Sir Alex plans to deal with their attacking threat. The inclusion of a natural winger in Nani will give Mourinho something to think about, too, and although the Portuguese may not be everyone’s cup of tea, he might just be the difference on the day.
5. The night Rafael became a man?
Not quite. It was always going to be a huge ask giving a 22-year-old the task of preventing one of the world’s best from causing havoc. Rafael was given a torrid time by Ronaldo, Özil and Coentrão in the first-half; he over-committed at times and was got the better of on more than one occasion. The Brazilian managed to shrug off his first-half display, however, and really settled into the game after the interval, much to the delight of his manager and team-mates. One thing is for sure: he’ll not be fazed by his nervy forty-five minutes in the Bernabéu. He has the mental strength and tenacity to overcome it and will want nothing more than a second crack at Ronaldo.
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