Cristiano Ronaldo keeps Real Madrid alive with opening-leg draw
Wednesday night saw the matchup of the Champions League round of 16, as Real Madrid hosted Manchester United at the Bernabeu. The game didn't disappoint, as Sir Alex Ferguson's visiting team took a surprise early lead before it was pegged back by Cristiano Ronaldo in his first match against his former club. It finished 1-1 -- advantage United. Meanwhile in Ukraine, Shakhtar Donetsk tied Borussia Dortmund 2-2 in another exciting encounter. Here's the rundown:
For all the talk of Ronaldo's outstanding goal record -- which now stands at 183 goals in 180 Madrid appearances -- his quest to overtake Messi as the world's best player and the dribbles, feints, pace, long shots and free kicks that mark his game, one thing seems certain: he is also one of the best headers in the game today, and ever. (OK, Messi did head a great goal in the 2009 Champions League final, but he does not make a habit of it.)
Eighteen months ago, Madrid scored a similar goal: Angel di Maria crossing from the left for Ronaldo, at the far post, to head home the winner in the 2011 Copa del Rey final against Barcelona. The only difference? Ronaldo celebrated on that occasion. This time, out of respect for his former side, Ronaldo didn't even crack a smile.
"What a header, unbelievable, you can't stop that," Ferguson said. "What a leap, the spring in the air, power in the header. At halftime I said to Patrice [Evra], 'Could you challenge for that?' and then I saw it on the video. What was I talking [about]?
"I think we did very well against him. It was difficult for him playing against us, he would have had lots of emotions. But it's very open. I think we'll score at Old Trafford, we know they're a good counter-attack side so we have a big job on our hands but it's in our grasp."
For once, this game lived up to the hype: even an hour before kickoff there was intrigue as Ferguson revealed his team, without Nemanja Vidic, who had been United's outstanding defender in last weekend's win over Everton. "Too much of a risk," said Ferguson, not wanting Vidic to inflame a long-standing knee injury.
There was also no place for Tom Cleverley or Antonio Valencia, while neither Nani or Ashley Young made the bench. Instead, United fielded Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa behind Robin van Persie, only the third time the quartet had started together this season.
The decision took 20 minutes to pay off: after United keeper David de Gea had pushed Fabio Coentrao's shot onto the post, and Van Persie been booked for a stray hand near Sergio Ramos' throat (while the Spanish defender got away with a loose elbow connecting with Jonny Evans' head), Welbeck evaded Ramos and headed a crucial away goal in the 20th minute to silence the home crowd.
Ten minutes later, Ronaldo headed Madrid level and from then on, the host was in charge of the game. Mesut Ozil found space on the left, causing Rafael da Silva problems, Di Maria floated past Evra and, early in the second half, went close with two excellent shots, one saved and the other narrowly wide.
The second half was a cagier affair, though both teams kept pushing: Raphael Varane avoided punishment for bringing down Evra as he burst through on goal, while De Gea used his feet to deny Coentrao at the far post, Sami Khedira with a shot from range; and he watched on as Ronaldo dipped a free kick just over the bar.
United missed two gilt-edged chances: Van Persie hit the bar and, in the next move, miscued a volley from 10 yards out; the ball dribbled past Diego Lopez, but Xabi Alonso cleared it before it crossed the line. A golden chance: will United regret it in the second leg March 5? The last moment of the game was Lopez's best moment, Van Persie's flashing shot tipped round his post.
This result gives United the advantage, but Madrid, a naturally counter-attacking team, will back themselves to score at Old Trafford. The matchup was fascinating: Madrid took 28 of the game's 41 goal attempts, and Ronaldo, although tracked diligently by Phil Jones, remained a constant menace. Madrid's star man was probably Di Maria, but the best player on the pitch was a Madridista not playing for the home team. De Gea, the United goalkeeper who has taken plenty of criticism this season (as well as last) picked a good time to come of age.
"This is Champions League, this is two matches home and away," Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho said. "They did their match, and they did it well."
Dortmund began this tie the stronger side, Mats Hummels heading against the crossbar early on before Marco Reus broke clear on goal before being bundled over by defender Yaroslav Rakitskiy: no foul, said referee Howard Webb. Shakhtar players took note of his leniency, and henceforth showed more aggression in their defending.
It was a Dortmund defender, Felipe Santana, whose lunge on Alex Teixeira led to the first goal. Captain Dario Srna took the free-kick and, with Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller unsighted by Santana trying to block the wall, the pacy dead-ball flew into the centre of the goal in the 31st minute.
When Dortmund's equalizer came, just before halftime, there was an element of luck involved. Mario Gotze crossed for Robert Lewandowski, who swung his boot to shoot, took out two defenders diving in to block and composed himself to slot past Andriy Pyatov.
The second half burst into life midway through, when substitute Douglas Costa took advantage of Hummels' misjudgment of Rakitskiy's long ball to lash home, high and with his left foot, a glorious goal in the 68th. It showed in a moment why Shakhtar coach Mircea Lucescu loves having Brazilian strikers, an affair that began over 40 years ago when, aged 20, he was part of the Romania team that spent a month touring Brazil in the winter of 1967.
"For a young player like me, coming from Romania to a country like that, you can only imagine the astonishment and wonder I felt," he recently reminisced. "I discovered the essence of every Brazilian: football, samba, beach and sex -- everything revolved around that. And I understood why this was enough for them to live happily."
Lucescu was not quite so happy when Hummels denied his team victory with a simple header from a corner in the 87th. The goal swung the tie hugely toward Dortmund: had the host not learned from its early letdown when Hummels hit the woodwork? Or had it run out of steam and fitness, given this was its first competitive game since Dec. 5? Either way, if Dortmund is the dark horse predicted after topping its group, it will need to improve in defense. But the job is half done.