Dogged work of terrier trio Rafael, Wayne Rooney and Phil Jones pens in conquistador Cristiano Ronaldo

Tireless work by Rafael, Rooney and Jones holds main threat in Manchester United's 'magnetic triangle'

the Bernabeu Stadium

It was a case of what Patrice Evra once called the "washing machine", the sense of being sloshed this way and that yet failing desperately to catch the pace of the game. Such was the giddiness that Rafael da Silva encountered on the most difficult night of his football life.

It has been his breakthrough season and one in which he has added the defensive component which had been missing in someone who started life as a winger at Fluminese and has taken time to learn that good defending at full-back is not about winning every challenge but getting close to the player running at you. Of course, nothing could prepare him for this kind of white heat.

The abundance of players Sir Alex Ferguson had billeted around him to help with the task of deterring Cristiano Ronaldo was, in theory, designed to let Rafael go up against the Portuguese and have a nibble, knowing there were others around the corner to sweep up. They were like a little magnetic triangle: the full-back, Phil Jones, who was nominally playing in midfield, and Wayne Rooney, all drawn into the field of space around Ronaldo.

Yet, when to go in, when to stay out? The difficulty of deciding was apparent from the game's opening minute when Rafael and Jones, for whom Operation Ronaldo was supposed to be a division of labour, both leapt frantically to match the immense leverage he gets on a header. And they both failed.

For a time, there just seemed no way to staunch the rapier thrusts from the man whose talents were forged in Manchester. Ronaldo's shouldered ball, eased into the path of Xabi Alonso as United fretted around him, was just one small motif.

And when Ronaldo had floated off elsewhere, there was Fabio Coentrao, drawing the two-footed tackle that Rafael had seemed to have extinguished from his game and which made you flinch.

And there was Mesut Özil – a player whose performance surpassed Ronaldo's by quite a distance – easing around the Brazilian on the dead-ball line. Rafael was complaining – justifiably but fatally – that Özil had taken the ball out of play when that momentary inattention let the German free to cross for Ronaldo to leap above Evra to score.

The conquistador waved this way and that, but it was from then on that United's quest to squeeze the life and space out of him began to take effect.

Jones doesn't actually care much for midfield, truth to tell. "I kind of shoot myself in the foot a bit," he said recently, after his performance helping Rafael to shut down Tottenham's Gareth Bale at White Hart Lane planted the seed in Ferguson's mind that Jones was his man for the Bernabeu. The part he played here wasn't always – or even often – pretty. The way he altered the angle of a defensive run to barge the exquisitely good Angel di Maria should have brought a penalty. But Jones, using his qualities of speed and aggression to get into Ronaldo's space, closed the door.

And so did Rooney, who was a sentinel, zeroing back time and again to the space in front of Rafael when an attack had broken down.

And so did Michael Carrick – three fine blocks or tackles to the good before the game had half elapsed. When Ozil tracked around Jones with 15 minutes to run, Jonny Evans got the block. And when it was required, the goalkeeper David de Gea withstood the sort of pressure that should crush a flourishing 22-year-old, let alone one requiring a big performance for the sake of his career. The faintest touch flipping Coentrao's shot on to the post; the deft stop with his feet to stem Sami Khedira's shot.

"I know better than most that as a defender you will be playing in quite a few situations where you are up against someone who has more skill and speed than you," Gary Neville told me at the start of this week.

Barely could a pre-match assessment have been truer. Ferguson's team matched rapier with resilience. Not exactly the stuff of dreams, but in its own significant way, Manchester United's finest night of football for several years.

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