The Champions League clash at the Bernabéu put writers in ebullient mood, with even complaints about the ref at a minimum
And so to Manchester with mixed emotions. At one end, David de Gea; at the other, Robin van Persie; and between them a fascinating, shifting match in which so much happened and so much more could have happened.
From that karate kick save to Xabi Alonso clearing off the line, a post and a bar, one each, and a standing ovation for Ryan Giggs, described in one Spanish newspaper as "a living legend". A result in which anything can still happen. "It's in the air," ran Marca's cover. The "it" in question is Cristiano Ronaldo – head, shoulders, and waist above Patrice Evra. "It" is the tie, too.
Surely it is better this way. Post-game at the Bernabéu, as the fans headed on to the streets, felt a bit like pre-game did: there was still excitement, expectation – this was fun, and there's another one to come.
"Heroics needed at Old Trafford," declared the cover of AS. And yet for most, the impossible task still feels eminently possible, even if Madrid have never gone through after a 1-1 home draw in the European Cup before. They had seen enough at both ends to fear, but also to believe. Enough, too, to draw the conclusions they wanted to draw.
In Catalonia, Sport cheered "the décima in danger", while El Mundo Deportivo declared "the décima, further away". Sport accused Madrid of being "scared"; almost 30 shots seemed to tell a different story. In Madrid, the strap lines said: "Scant reward for Madrid's football" and "a good Madrid deserved to win clearly".
In a way, both were right. Santi Segurola called it a "night of paradoxes". As Juanma Trueba put it, Madrid had gone from a "bath to a walk along a knife edge, half of their body in the penalty area, the other hanging over the precipice". A bath is a drubbing, a whitewash.
In the first half, Madrid had dominated: Danny Welbeck's goal, Trueba adds, was not so much a glass of cold water poured on them as the North Sea, with icebergs for ice cubes. But in the second half, United had the clearer of the chances, even as De Gea made his more impressive saves. Madrid, as they have done often, dropped in intensity, that storm of a start unsustainable.
Marca's match report insisted: "United didn't do anything special, except demonstrate that character to not be overawed by the Bernabéu." José Mourinho and Alex Ferguson seemed to disagree too: Ferguson said his team were too deep in the first half, Mourinho said they had been deep in the second. And yet it was Van Persie who came closest to winning it. "We rode our luck," admitted Phil Jones, "but then we had chances too. I think a draw is fair."
There were complaints about the referee, but even those – pretty much the staple diet – were tempered. Felix Brych should have given Angel di María a penalty for a push from Jones, the Spanish media agreed, and the corner that led to United's goal should never have been given. But then there was the corner given but not allowed to be taken, the Raphaël Varane trip on Patrice Evra and a handful of other decisions that went the home side's way. On Cadena Ser radio, one commentator described Brych as Madrid's best player.
Mostly the complaints were tempered by a simple fact: they'd enjoyed this. There was so much more to say. There were eulogies for both goalkeepers, for Ronaldo and for Di María. Even for Fábio Coentrão, not exactly the most popular man in Madrid: "His best game for Madrid by a long way," Angel Rivero wrote. Mesut Ozil split opinion – an impressive performance without the final pass – and there are concerns about the continued failure of Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuaín to make a decisive mark on games.
On the other side, Welbeck was the "the star, involved in all Manchester's best plays" and there was pride in De Gea and his "miraculous foot", back in Spain and making eight saves. "This was the night De Gea was a devil." Speaking of which, when it came to that "freckled devil", as Marca had called him – in an article, incidentally, which far from inflammatory as it has been portrayed was a eulogy and a largely fond one – there were more mixed emotions: admiration tinged with sadness. Wayne Rooney, the man sacrificed.
"With five minutes to go, Ferguson took him off, shattered," notes El País. "Not one shot on goal, but the stats show that he had run 10,395 metres, so Ferguson patted him on those broad, deckhand's shoulders. The superstar, a worker."