Manchester United's all-action man was stuck out on the right in an unsuccessful attempt to shackle his one-time team-mate
Real Madrid's home patch is not the most accommodating arena to discover whether Wayne Rooney could match the influence of Cristiano Ronaldo. For one night in Castille this was the challenge for the total footballer in the Manchester United ranks.
Pre-match, Sir Alex Ferguson had focused on these abilities when stating of Rooney: "He also plays different positions with great enthusiasm. Not every player in the world has these qualities."
Marca, the Real Madrid newspaper, had identified Rooney as United's matador of danger. Although this reading somehow passed over the ongoing impact of Robin van Persie's debut season, the Liverpudlian was Marca's El Coco – "bogey man" – that screamed in the headline on their front page in Tuesday's edition. Other dubious monikers its writer assigned to Rooney were "freckled demon" and "hooligan", though the description of him as "a barrel packed with gunpowder" rang true.
Rooney's display was another drawn from his all-action mode as he was stuck out on the right by Ferguson, from where he was asked to aid the still erratic Rafael da Silva shackle Ronaldo and also help launch United's attacks.
It was Rooney's 20th-minute corner floated on to Danny Welbeck's head from which United opened the scoring. His calling as the closest Ferguson has to an on-field lieutenant was evident in the immediate aftermath of the goal: Rooney strode to the technical area and gestured to United's bench with his arms spread wide to inform them that there was too much of a gap between him and Rafael whenever Ronaldo collected down the left.
Rooney's defensive efforts can appear laboured, though this does not stop one of football's eternal triers. It was his boot in on Fabio Coentrão that halted a Madrid move on 29 minutes. And though from the ensuing play Ronaldo headed his side's equaliser, when the game restarted it was Rooney who won a free-kick near his area then was up on his feet to berate team-mates for not closing down harder.
Rooney's participation in this opening leg of a last-16 encounter that would have been a Champions League final of choice for many neutrals was written up by Marca as the chance for Pepe, Ricardo Carvalho and even Ronaldo to renew hostilities with the 27-year-old, whose rich run of form stood at 11 goals in his last 12 outings. That brought the total to 17 after the slow start to a campaign hobbled by the gash to a leg he suffered in United's second match, a 3-2 win over Fulham in August that ruled him out for a month.
In the event Pepe and Carvalho were on the bench and there was no hint of any acrimony between Rooney and Ronaldo: just the intriguing sight of the Portuguese being harried by his former team-mate.
On eight minutes Ronaldo could feel Rooney's breath on his neck as he chased him down so his shot was hurried and steered wide of David de Gea's right post. Moments later, when a cross from the Madrid right came aimed at Ronaldo, it was Rooney who stood nearest to him.
Ferguson's response to Marca had been typically pithy: "Rooney can't read Spanish so we will be all right," he said, before lauding how Rooney has grown up. "He is 27. When players mature little bits of their games change. His goal-scoring has been very consistent. He used to score in snatches. Now there is a far more consistent nature to his goals."
Van Persie, the partner to Rooney in the duo that has terrorised domestic defences all season, had a quiet evening in his role as the lone striker in the familiar 4-2-3-1, though after the break one shot hit the bar and another effort was cleared near the Madrid line.
The Dutchman's United career can still be filed under nascent but 23 goals in all competitions – 18 in the league – is a pointer to where he may end in the pantheon of strikers who have pulled on the famous red jersey.
There were flashes of Van Persie's class on an evening which was always likely to unfold into a backs-to-the-wall test of attrition for the visitors. One sweet combination with Rooney saw the latter loft a 40-yard ball over the top that opened Madrid up but Van Persie failed to profit.
Then a smooth chest-down, swivel and turn was followed by Van Persie being booked for placing a hand in the face of Sergio Ramos. Angel Di María and Sami Khedira were later the patsies in some deft footwork from the Dutchman that left them trailing near halfway though support was lacking from his team-mates.
Van Persie and Rooney reside in the class below Ronaldo, having more limited skills than a player Ferguson rates above Zinedine Zidane and as a candidate as Madrid's greatest ever player.
These are some compliments. To outshine such a force a piece of individual brilliance was the requirement. Or for the Rooney-Van Persie axis to combine and provide the killer formula for United on the night.
Beyond the second-half attempts that went close and one at the death, Van Persie's best creative contribution was a cross down the left that Welbeck came near to adding his second from before Diego López saved for a corner. Rooney also went close from a corner but missed to López's right.
Perhaps at Old Trafford in three weeks' time, when the return leg is played, Rooney or Van Persie will have the final say.