Manchester United traveled to the Spanish capital to face European giants Real Madrid in the first of a two-legged last 16 Champions League clash. Tactics and players contributed to an exciting match which contained some excellent performances and some concerns on both sides, but will Madrid be the more worried about their last eight chances?
By Henry Tydeman – @HenryTydeman
As everyone was expecting, Manchester United’s clash with Real Madrid on Tuesday night made for hugely entertaining viewing.
In particular, Real’s Cristiano Ronaldo impressed with his threatening performance, one that he capped off with an impressive headed goal. It was United’s keeper though, David de Gea, who stole the show; the Spaniard made a number of crucial saves that kept his side in the game, and his performance put paid to any suggestions – and there have been many - that he is out of his depth at Old Trafford. Everyone noticed these two players, and their respective decisive contributions. Ronaldo and de Gea’s remarkable performances stood out, but in the process, they overshadowed a number of interesting subplots that the contest brought about.
Firstly, what of Karim Benzema, the Madrid forward? The game seemed to pass the Frenchman by, as is the case in far too many high-profile games Benzema is involved in. He has a good scoring record for Real Madrid, and played a key role in last season’s title win. But at the very highest level, for his club and when on international duty, the striker has not quite delivered.
When he burst on to the scene some five years ago, there was talk of Benzema becoming one of the best players on the planet, given time. But after scoring against United for Lyon in February 2008, despite getting his big money move to the Bernabéu in 2009, Benzema has flattered to deceive when it has come to the biggest stage. One game in particular, France’s Euro 2012 quarter-final meeting with Spain in Donetsk, stood out as being one in which the forward was totally and utterly ineffectual. He is still relatively young, and has time on his side. But he can do so much more. Benzema only had to look to the Madrid bench to see an example of one who, despite enjoying a successful career, has not quite delivered what was expected of him as a youngster.
Kaká dominated the Champions League in the 2006/7 season, and finished the campaign with a winners’ medal. At the time it seemed as if he might just go on to become one of the best Brazilian players of all time. But, for whatever reason, he hasn’t done so. When he moved to Real, also in 2009, he appeared to be on the precipice of true greatness. A year on from his move, it was thought that the 2010 World Cup represented an ideal opportunity for Kaká to confirm his brilliance on the world stage. But he never got going in South Africa, unfairly sent off against the Ivory Coast in the group stage, and exiting the tournament in the quarter-finals. At 30 years old, the Brazilian should be a central figure for Madrid and for his country. He should be at his peak, but he isn’t. His best days are behind him, and it really is such a shame that Kaká has been unable to develop into the true footballing legend that, some years ago, he seemed capable of becoming.
Maybe criticism of these two players is unfair; but in being members of a team in which Ronaldo has blossomed into one of the two best players in the world, Benzema and Kaká’s failings are made even more noticeable.
In terms of United, the key role that Jonny Evans has played in recent months seems to have slipped under the radar. There was a time when the thought of Evans supplanting either Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidić at the heart of United’s defence was a laughable one. For years the Northern Irishman was thought of as being massively inferior to the other central defenders, and he was mocked, sometimes even by his own club’s fans, who saw him as a woefully inadequate defensive deputy. How times have changed. Nowadays, Evans is called upon regularly by Sir Alex Ferguson. He has started 17 out of United’s 26 league games this season, and has at no point looked out-of-place. His performance against Madrid underlined just how much he has matured and improved as a centre-half. There is no doubt any more that Jonny Evans is ready to play regularly at the highest level, and it would not be a surprise if, ultimately, he becomes the long-term replacement for Ferdinand, who, at 34, will not be involved for too many more years at Old Trafford.
Finally, no one batted an eyelid when, in the 64th minute, Ryan Giggs entered the fray. After all, he seems to come on as a substitute regularly these days, adding his experience and quality on the ball to proceedings. But one should take a moment to consider just how old Giggs is. He’s 39. He turns 40 in November. And yet he maintains his excellent standards of skill and fitness that still enable him to make meaningful contributions, and make them frequently, at that. Of the ‘class of ‘92’ United youth team which Giggs was a part of, Gary Neville is now a Sky Sports pundit. Nicky Butt was last seen playing in the Hong Kong First Divison in 2011. Between 2007 and 2012 David Beckham played for The Los Angeles Galaxy. It should be noted that out of all these players and former players, Giggs is the oldest. And yet he is the one still playing in the Champions League. A truly remarkable footballer; one with an incredible drive to continue achieving success, both individually and as part of his team, for as long as possible.
Yes, the game on Tuesday night was brilliantly entertaining. And yes, Ronaldo really is an incredible talent. But there was so much more to the epic clash than met the eye.
There was a number of interesting displays by players on Wednesday night. Who stood out the most, and who had a surprisingly brilliant or bogus performance? Tweet us @talkingbaws or comment below.