Manchester United will up against a Madrid team with the ability and the belief to beat the odds in Champions League return
Real Madrid had not won and they had not kept the clean sheet at home that José Mourinho considers so precious but the manager was satisfied. In fact, he was bullish in the aftermath of the 1-1 draw with Manchester United at the Santiago Bernabéu. Sir Alex Ferguson insisted that he would have taken the draw if he had been offered it before kick-off and Mourinho certainly would not have done, but the message from Madrid remained a confident one.
"It is still 50-50," Mourinho said. "My confidence has not dropped, not even by 1%." On the other side, meanwhile, Phil Jones was saying much the same thing, except that his was a message of caution. Asked if United now find themselves in the better position, he responded succinctly: "No, not really."
That was understandable. This tie has shifted in United's favour but it has not shifted far. Xabi Alonso described the draw as "not the best result" but nor is it the worst. Sergio Ramos, Madrid's captain, said: "We're disappointed with the result in truth. But [the tie] is very open. We believe we can go there and win." They may not even need to do that; what they will need to do, though, is score.
The front cover of the sports daily AS ran on "Heroics needed at Old Trafford" but, while Madrid need a good performance, they may not need heroics. A solitary goal may prove sufficient and United have kept only two clean sheets in their past 10 Champions League games at Old Trafford.
History and the statistics suggest that it remains difficult for Madrid. They have drawn 1-1 in the first leg at home five times and they have not progressed in any of those European Cup ties. Bayern Munich knocked them out in 1975-76, PSV Eindhoven in 1987-88, Milan in 1988-89 and Dynamo Kiev in 1998-99. It is not just Madrid, either: in 18 Champions League ties in which the first leg finished 1-1, the away team in the second leg went through four times.
Another 1-1 draw would lead to a penalty shootout; Madrid have been involved in only one during the Champions League era – when knocked out by Munich in last season's semi-final. "Records are there to be broken," Ramos said.
Ferguson noted that whoever got the first goal would have a significant advantage. Mourinho was running through the scenarios, thinking positively, his conclusion contradicting that of Ferguson. In truth, an early goal for United would change little. "I like playing the first game at home," Mourinho said. "If United score, we will [still] have to score to draw level. If we score, we will be in the lead."
Madrid's away form has been poor this season; that is the main reason why they trail Barcelona by 16 points. Of 20 games on the road, they have won seven, drawn five and lost eight. Where they have come unstuck is in scoring against teams who have ceded possession and defended deep, waiting for them and thus denying them the chance to counterattack. After Betis beat them, their coach Pepe Mel said: "Against Madrid, you give them the ball."
Madrid lost that game 1-0, the same scoreline that they suffered at Granada and Sevilla. They were held to a 0-0 draw at Osasuna. The concern might be United employing similar tactics. "They played very deep and relied on their faster players on the break – and we think they'll do the same in the return leg," said the goalkeeper Diego López. Mourinho did not think so; he suggested that this will be different to domestic drudgery and to the first leg and there is sense in his thinking.
Even before this game, Madrid's coach insisted on an emotional explanation. "One of the things we are missing this season is the appetite and motivation against smaller opponents – that is why we have dropped points," he said. "In the Champions League we had a very difficult group and we knew that from day one we had to be at a top level because we could go out. Against big opponents we respond well."
The explanation overlooked the fact that Madrid's away results in Europe have not been overwhelmingly impressive either. They beat Ajax easily but were defeated in Dortmund and drew 1-1 at Manchester City. Focus on temperament also overlooks a tactical explanation. Although it is true that Madrid have lacked intensity in La Liga, seemingly less bothered by it, they have also lacked a little subtlety and imagination at times too: this is a hugely talented team but one who perform best on the break.
"They have got a result that they like but we will have chances to score at Old Trafford," Mourinho said. "Lots of teams have done so there and they do not have the offensive potential we do. Tonight we had the initiative against an opponent on the edge of their own area. I do not think they will sit deep and close off at Old Trafford. English footballing culture will not allow them to play with the defence in their area. They cannot play at home as they have here."
Mourinho may well be right. He may also have been speaking more in hope than expectation.