As the stars of Manchester United's courageous hit-and-run raid on Real Madrid Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck, David de Gea, and Jonny Evans go down in footballing lore as using the Santiago Bernabéu's intense cathedral as the venue for their coming out party.

It was a spine – goalkeeper, central defender, defensive midfielder and forward – handed great responsibility in this opening Champions League last-16 leg by Sir Alex Ferguson. They were to blunt Madrid's attacking forces of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Angel dí Maria and Mesut Ozil while also nabbing a vital away goal, which Welbeck did with his fine 20th-minute header.

Jones is 20, Welbeck and De Gea are 22 while Evans at 25 also falls into the emerging player category as he begins to usurp the ageing Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic as Ferguson's first-choice centre-back.

Jones was immense. Still feeling his way back into regular football due to the serious knee and back problems that prevented him starting the campaign until late November, Ferguson dropped Tom Cleverley to hand Jones the task of being United's prime midfield shield. In this role his most obvious duty was to help shackle Ronaldo as the Portuguese wandered across the Bernabéu turf and Jones turned in a blurring display of blocking, tackling and closing down that did not wane until the final whistle.

In the first minute of added time, he twice blocked Ronaldo near his line when the ex-United man appeared certain to score his second and give Madrid the 2-1 win that would have tilted this tie their way. Jones had not finished: it was his lofted pass into Robin van Persie that nearly set up United's own late winner though the Dutchman's shot was saved by Diego López as the contest ended.

He is a born leader. In Vidic's absence Patrice Evra wore the armband but this was a night when Jones announced his candidacy as Ferguson's long-term on-field lieutenant. An illustration came early on when Jones crashed into a tackle on Ronaldo and Michael Carrick, his midfield partner, was tartly informed to stop congratulating him and get over to the right touchline to continue mucking in.

Of Jones, Ferguson purred: "At 20 years of age, he is going to be a fantastic player, I am sure about that. He had a knee operation [earlier in the season] so we are managing it, taking time and he won't play every week. But whether he plays midfield or centre-back it doesn't bother him and he gives me great options."

So, too, Welbeck. His strike was only a second in 29 United appearances as Van Persie's blistering debut season and Javier Hernández's renaissance have limited his game-time. But as Welbeck has shown for England the Mancunian is the man for the big occasion. Ferguson explained: "Along with [Wayne] Rooney we decided to do something different tactically and play them narrower to shut off the midfield so it was a job on a tactical basis that he did well."

Here we see the deep trust Ferguson has in Welbeck not only to offer a greater attacking threat than Hernández, who ended the game as an unused substitute, but also as possessing maturity to play wide left and help stymie Ronaldo, Di María and company. Ferguson adds: "He was marvellous. Pity he got cramp at the end of the game, but he worked so hard. They found it difficult to handle him."

Welbeck might have had a hat-trick. His other opportunities were later in the opening half when, on the stretch, he failed to convert a Van Persie cross and following the break when he danced through the Madrid defence before Raphaël Varane tackled him near Diego López's goal.

De Gea's evening was among the sweetest he has experienced in a United shirt following deep scrutiny of his form this season. The Spaniard, who played for Real's city rivals Atlético Madrid before his transfer, filed a brilliant catalogue of saves. These included a dazzling fingertips effort that pushed Fábio Coentrão's sixth-minute shot on to a post – at half-time on Sky Sports, Peter Schmeichel said he did not know how – and a second-half effort that De Gea repelled with his feet in a kind of flying kick.

"He has been improving all season," Ferguson says. "There was one save in the first half which he touched on to the post – a superb save [from Coentrão]. I am pleased for him, an Atlético boy playing here in Madrid, but he has done well has the boy."

The tie is far for over with Ronaldo sure to want more of a say at Old Trafford in three weeks' time, where the Portuguese hopes to break his former mentor's heart. Yet whatever the final result, Ferguson and United are boosted immensely by the Wednesday evening performance of his young guns.

Evans is no callow youth. But he is now making a firm case to be considered first choice in central defence. When the team-sheets dropped and Vidic was not in the 18 the assumption ran that the captain was injured. Yet Ferguson explained the Serb's absence thus: "If we had played on the Saturday [against Everton], the extra day would have suited me, but he plays one game every eight or nine days and still has to manage his comeback from injury. Rio is exactly the same, and the type of game on Sunday suited Vidic more."

A season or so ago Vidic's knee would have been risked for such a seismic encounter. Instead, Ferguson looked at Evans and decided he was more than up to the task.

Further satisfaction can be drawn when last season's disastrous Champions League campaign is recalled. Then, United failed to participate post-Christmas as they failed to emerge from their group. Now, Ferguson's next generation have grown up. They are not the future anymore. They are United's present.