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Fergie’s kids grow up

Buried deep in the enthusiasm and bombast of Sir Alex Ferguson’s build-up to this game was a comment clearly as rehearsed as anything the Manchester United manager will ever say.

Sitting next to his goalkeeper David de Gea at a press conference at the Bernabeu on Tuesday, Ferguson knew he would be asked about the 22-year-old Spaniard and was ready.

‘We are good at developing people,’ said Ferguson. ‘David is like a kid making his steps forward. He wobbles, he gets up, wobbles, gets up and now, all of a sudden, he is walking.’

Not only was it great imagery, it was perfectly placed. By his side, it was almost possible to see De Gea’s chest swell. Nothing, after all, fills a sportsman with belief more than flattery from his manager; well, nothing, perhaps, apart from a resolute performance in one of sport’s great arenas.

That is exactly what De Gea was here: resolute. He was not brilliant or awe-inspiring or incredible. Or any other superlative.

He was resolute, dependable and influential. On this occasion, that was enough. This was a grown-up goalkeeping performance, one that perhaps serves notice that De Gea can be a force for good at United after all.

Certainly, if he builds on this then he will be fine as never for one moment did he look anxious or uncertain.

A rather awkward-looking man for an athlete, he never really looks the part physically. Once the serious business began, though, De Gea looked at ease.

There were moments, in the first half particularly, when he came for deep crosses and didn’t get them. It remains his weakness, a genuine concern.

Significantly, though, there was a fingertip save from Fabio Coentrao that diverted the Real defender’s shot on to the inside of a post in the fifth minute. Real were rampant at that stage and, had they scored, United could have been in for a long night.

As it was, Ferguson’s team survived the early shelling and gradually eased themselves into the game.

Danny Welbeck’s goal would not have meant much, after all, had United already been three adrift.

This is where goalkeepers can be so important. They can help to set the tone for games as well as saving games and winning games with contributions they may make later on.

There were other moments for De Gea to reflect on with satisfaction. As Real dragged United backwards and forwards across the full width of the pitch during the first half, it was inevitable they would fashion chances.

De Gea, though, looked sound and another save he made, diving to his right to repel a shot from Mesut Ozil after Xabi Alonso’s sensational crossfield free-kick had released the German, ensured United reached half-time on level terms.

In the second half, Real were not as incisive. They lost some rhythm, tempo and — as a result — some confidence. De Gea saved well twice more — from Coentrao with his legs and Sami Khedira — but it was, in fact, home goalkeeper Diego Lopez who made the two best saves of that period, both from Robin van Persie.

For Ferguson and his team, this really was a good night. They were not the better team — far from it — but they were steadfast, organised and sporadically dangerous on the break. The latter will give them confidence ahead of the second leg at Old Trafford.

Some thought Ferguson had put his neck on the line with his team selection. The United manager, though, would not have seen it like that. He has simply been waiting for the night he eased players like Jonny Evans, Welbeck and Phil Jones into a game of this magnitude. As such, he won’t have blinked.

Like all clubs, United experience disappointments, such as last season’s early Champions League exit. Rarely, though, do they find themselves on the outside looking in for long and that is due largely to the way that Ferguson regenerates his teams.

It is a great skill and one that speaks of consistency of thought and, more importantly, of strategy and planning.

It is six years, for example, since Evans made his debut for United and four-and-a-half since Welbeck made his. At times there have been doubts about their pedigree. Here, though, they were in this team on merit. It’s what patience and maturity bring.

Of the two, Welbeck enjoyed the better night, providing an outlet that was valuable to the hustling United rearguard and making a mug of an experienced Spanish international to head his team into the lead. Sergio Ramos clearly thought he could bully Welbeck and was pushing and pulling him as the ball came over. Welbeck merely jumped and glanced the ball into the corner.

He was a threat all night, too, and if Evans and Jones found things a little harder, that is understandable. Better and more experienced players have struggled at the Bernabeu.

With familiarity comes unity of purpose, though. Call it solidarity, if you will. Throughout this contest, United needed that and for long periods it served them well.

There were deficiencies, certainly. Michael Carrick could not find enough of the ball while 22-year-old right back Rafael — improved this season — had a bad night.

He will learn. He will be allowed to. Some teams are occasionally considered to be works in progress. Ferguson’s teams always are. They are never finished.

And De Gea, and others, took steps forward they may remember for a while.

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