Cristiano Ronaldo scored with a spectacular header Wednesday as Real Madrid was held to a 1-1 home draw by Manchester United in the last 16 of the Champions League following a dominant performance by visiting goalkeeper David de Gea.After Danny Welbeck gave United the lead against the run of play with a header from a 20th-minute corner, Ronaldo rose high to meet Angel di Maria’s swinging cross 10 minutes later for his 183rd goal for Madrid – and first against his former club.
Ronaldo’s goal in the first leg at Santiago Bernabeu stadium means he has now eclipsed Francisco “Paco” Gento to become Madrid’s sixth most prolific scorer.
“We began very strong and suddenly they scored and the match took on another form for us,” Madrid coach Jose Mourinho said.
De Gea made several impressive saves, including a fingertip effort onto the post to deny Fabio Coentrao in the first half as well as holding a firmly struck bouncing shot from Sami Khedira after the break.
“Fortunately, David De Gea made some very good saves. He’s been improving all season and he made an absolutely superb save there,” United manager Alex Ferguson said of his oft-maligned goalkeeper’s stop on Coentrao’s attempt.
The match had been built up as Mourinho against Ferguson and Ronaldo versus Robin van Persie, but the United striker failed to take advantage of several good opportunities. He struck the crossbar with a fierce right-footed strike and forced a save with a low drive late on, however a mishit volley that was cut out by Xabi Alonso as it neared the goal line proved to be his most glaring miss.
By contrast, Ronaldo was a constant menace without ever really threatening to cut loose. He sent several shots passed De Gea’s posts and even landed a 35-meter free kick on the top of the goalkeeper’s net.
The last time these two teams met at the Bernabeu was in 2003 when Madrid emerged 3-1 winners. But it has been 11 years since Madrid played a knockout Champions League match without goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who was out because of a broken hand and replaced by Diego Lopez.
Mourinho also chose 19-year-old French center back Raphael Varane following his great performance against Barcelona in which he almost single-handedly rescued Madrid in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals that ended in a 1-1 draw.
First-choice center back Pepe was on the bench as has been recovering from surgery on his right ankle in early January. He came on late Saturday to take part in Madrid’s 4-1 trouncing of Sevilla, a match in which midfielders Xabi Alonso, Mesut Oezil and Khedira were rested in anticipation of United’s visit.
Ferguson opted to start Jonny Evans alongside Rio Ferdinand in defense with club captain Nemanja Vidic failing to even earn a place on the bench due to his recent lengthy layoff. Shinji Kagawa was also promoted but proved ineffectual against Madrid’s bustling midfield and was replaced in the second half.
United’s European campaigns in the previous two seasons have been ended by Spanish sides, going out in the Europa League to Althletic Bilbao last year and losing the Champions League final to Barcelona in 2011.
Madrid started the match looking sharp, with Khedira shooting wide from a second-inute pass by Ronaldo in his team’s first attack. Two minutes later, Di Maria also shot wide and Coentrao sent the ball across De Gea’s goalmouth after a probing run from left back.
United’s defense looked more solid after the break, allowing the team to counter with Van Persie making a searching run that was only ended in the box by Varane’s timely intercepting tackle.
Gonzalo Higuain came on for the anonymous Karim Benzema in the 60th, and a minute later De Gea stretched athletically to save with his right foot after Coentrao, sliding forward, connected with Khedira’s pass.
The 39-year-old Ryan Giggs came on for Kagawa, making his 133rd appearance in the Champions League and steadying United by sitting deep to help soak up the pressure ahead of the second leg on March 5.
The much-awaited duel between Pepe and Wayne Rooney, who criticized the Portugal defender on Twitter for stamping on Lionel Messi’s hand in a previous match, proved to be short-lived when the United forward was replaced only one minute after Pepe’s entry into the match.
Borussia Dortmund twice came from behind to draw 2-2 at Shakhtar Donetsk in the other opening leg of the last-16 series on Wednesday.