James Lawton: Manchester United pull out old fighting qualities against Real Madrid so typical of Sir Alex Ferguson

The Manchester United manager has an enduring ability to produce competitive teams

They may not be the Manchester United that used to routinely light fires at home and across Europe but they are still recognisably Manchester United.

This is to say that they retain unique qualities of fighting character and after superbly restraining some of the best that a now single-minded Real Madrid, for whom nothing for the moment exists beyond the Champions League, could produce in their own most intimidating fortress, their manager Sir Alex Ferguson had reason to believe that he may once again have a gleam of light in what not so long ago seemed like on-rushing crisis.

Jose Mourinho, gritting his teeth on the draw and the concession to United of an away goal, rejected the idea that his team have yielded too much vital ground.

He said that the battle would resume wide open at Old Trafford and certainly when the managers embraced before their ritual swigging of a glass of red wine, there was certainly no sense that either man held a whip-hand. They are locked, indeed, in the middle of a most absorbing battle, and which at the very least said that United have indeed found a foothold on the higher levels of the European game.

By half-time we had the measure of what United might achieve by going home in any situation resembling parity. Above all, it would be another tribute to the enduring ability of Ferguson to produce competitive teams unwilling to accept that time, and the balance of power, has moved against them – at least on the wider European front.

A less combative tradition would surely have been pushed to an early breaking point by the ease with which Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil carved open huge swathes of space in the United cover and Rafael da Silva's desperate first half concluded with a yellow card – for grappling down the brilliant Ozil on the edge of the box – and the sense that as long as he remained on the field he would be not much more than some ultimate disaster.

However, no one could say that this Ferguson team had lost the ability to fight with some coherence in the great football cockpit where the need to win a 10th European crown has become not so much still another ambition but a daily obsession. United, and especially David de Gea held their nerve under a ferocious opening bombardment, most obdurately when the goalkeeper touched the ball on to the post when Fabio Coentrao sent in a brilliantly angled shot.

Less resolute spirits might have buckled but there is not a whole lot of surrender in the DNA of Ferguson teams and nor was there now. Indeed, Danny Welbeck's opener on 20 minutes was a fine example of United's ability to absorb some biting pressure and then strike back with the most serious intent. His header was a beautifully controlled response to Wayne Rooney's perfectly judged corner. Unfortunately that of Ronaldo to Angel di Maria's cross 10 minutes later came from an entirely different dimension.

Ronaldo conjured the most vivid memory of his vital strike for United against Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow. His hang-time was supernatural and then his header gave De Gea not the sliver of a chance.

Again, though, the Spanish goalkeeper showed superior defiance early in the second half when once more he denied the impressive Coentrao at his near post when Sami Khedira delivered a potentially devastating cross. It was a statement of defiance which brought a chill to the Bernabeu and still another reminder that killing off United, at any level and in any corner of football, is still an ultimate test of a team's resolution. It demands a degree of hauteur – and an even greater concentration of finishing efficiency.

The problem is the message that Ferguson is still able to inject into the very bloodstream of his team. This is the one that brings an extremely low regard for the degree of difficulty in whatever situation they happen to face and for so long, this was represented most brilliantly by the often embattled De Gea. He came home to Madrid with a battery of questions against his long-term ability to succeed men like Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar but here he had a major statement to make.

He had made eight significant saves by the time Robin van Persie twice threatened to give United the wondrous bonus of a second away goal and the timeless Ryan Giggs came on to support the possibility that his team, having again exerted its authority at home, was once again in the business of competing seriously in Europe.

By then Mourinho, football's great street fighter, had decided to stiffen his defence and consider the possibilities of counter attack at Old Trafford, perhaps an easier challenge away from the broiling pressure of the Bernabeu.

Whatever the Special One did, however, he could not obscure the fact that once again his old warrior opponent had found the secret of making a team play to the very limit of its ability. It is a tough quality indeed and, still, there are times when it is hard to separate from competitive genius.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
News
i100
News
Prince Harry is clearing enjoying the Commonwealth Games judging by this photo
people(a real one this time)
Sport
Lionel Messi looks on at the end of the final
football
Extras
indybest
News
Richard Norris in GQ
mediaGQ features photo shoot with man who underwent full face transplant
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on