Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno
Our heroes were champions on many levels at the Bernabeu.
Heroes come in different forms. Perhaps you don't consider footballers genuine heroes and that's fair enough. They can, though, be champions against the narrative and that in itself can be inspirational. What a grand occasion it was last night when Manchester United -- Britain's most decorated football club -- visited Real Madrid -- Spain's most decorated football club -- for a European clash at one of the grand cathedrals of the sport in the Bernabeu*. Rightfully so, the UEFA Champions League tie had been highly anticipated since the draw in December and predictably, the lazy narratives were in full force too.
* Admittedly another obvious narrative. Forgive me, though, for being seduced by this romanticism.
Quite honestly, Manchester United were nowhere near their attacking best and that was despite them deploying the quartet of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, and Shinji Kagawa in their starting XI. Sir Alex Ferguson sent out world-class and up-and-coming attackers but his side as a whole were very functional. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, as this is a result based business. Following tactical instructions to earn a desired result is admirable and as Gary Neville implied on Sky Sports, hard-work is a talent.
Coming into the match, much of the focus had been on the supposed struggles of David de Gea. The Spaniard, of course, is an obvious topic of discussion in the return to his homeland. During his season-and-a-half plus at United, so much has been made of his blunders. He's admittedly not the most convincing goalkeeper when it comes to commanding his box -- and this is clearly important in the (decreasingly) direct Premier League -- but he's nowhere near the liability the media has portrayed him as. More disrespectful has been the lack of volume in recognition of his outstanding shot-stopping ability. When he makes a world-class save -- something which has been a regular occurrence during his time at Old Trafford -- the acknowledgment is almost begrudging by the U.K. press.
The fact of the matter is, de Gea was arguably the best goalkeeper in England last season from January 'til May. It was of huge annoyance to United fans that this was hardly acknowledged during that time. Keep in mind that this is a fanbase that has extraordinary expectations for it's players and also for it's goalkeepers -- Edwin van der Sar and Peter Schmeichel are two icons of the Ferguson era.
The 22-year-old's performance at the Bernabeu was tremendous -- and hardly surprising (to those who've been paying attention). Sir Alex has been adamant as of late in his defense of his young goalkeeper and he's rightfully labeled those having a go at him as idiots. We can only imagine the vindication the youngster felt after his man-of-the-match-performance. United's supporters, too, can take pride in the conviction of their belief in de Gea. Collectively, this glorious night by the goalkeeper felt like one giant middle-finger to the narrative.
The Spaniard's rival, from a United perspective for man-of-the-match, was Danny Welbeck. The Manchester native was a surprise inclusion but he was arguably Ferguson's brightest outfield player at the Bernabeu. United took a cautious approach in the match and when pressure needed to be relieved, it was Welbeck that consistently provided it. The England international used his pace and power to overwhelm Madrid at times when he surged into the channels. It was quite fitting that it was him who provided United's lone goal. Even though it came from a set-piece, his strength and anticipation is what created the separation for his clinical header.
What's most pleasing about Welbeck being United's goalscoring hero is that many have been slagging him for his lack of goals. Perhaps rightfully so to an extent. What many continually fail to recognize, though, is his contribution to attacking moves due to his intelligent movement and all-around ability. Furthermore, he's been increasingly shunted out wide this season since the arrival of talisman Robin van Persie. He's continually asked to play thankless roles. Danny's finishing certainly needs to improve if he ever desires to become a top-class striker -- which, of course, he undoubtedly does -- but he did come through on the most important night of his professional night. He, too, was a hero against the narrative in Madrid.
And finally, Jonny Evans. Another standout at the Bernabeu. And another middle-finger against the narrative.
The Northern Irishman was a surprise starter to some (to those paying attention, Nemanja Vidic was never going to play his second game in four days because of his recently surgically repaired knee). Since the start of the 2011-12 season, Evans has been one of the best defenders in the Premier League. Like all defenders, he'll make a mistake and these obviously stand out when goals result because of them. Admittedly, he didn't have the most convincing start at United and therefore, he's become a polarizing figure -- and an easy target for the media.
What many fail to recognize is that Evans is actually a really good footballer now. His positioning is astute, he's able in tackle, adequate in the air, very good on the ball (with both feet), and he's mobile. He's a modern central-defender that just put in an extraordinary performance on a gigantic European night. Perhaps not many world football fans expected this. United fans, though, were hardly surprised.
Last night in Madrid was a very good result. It's not one that will be sung about decades from now, but it was a hugely important result on the road to what could potentially be a special season. Some of the heroes on the night were unexpected ones by most but hardly shocking to us -- United fans. We know of their quality. We know of their capabilities. We should also appreciate that they're heroes against the lazy narrative.
This website -- like so many on the SB Nation network -- is devoted to meaningful coverage and community involvement. No one knows our team better than us. Do yourself a favor and don't give into lazy narratives when the traditional media slag our players. Continue with your conviction at pubs when you feel someone wrongfully puts down David de Gea or another player. As frustrating as it can seem, you'll eventually get rewarded (sometimes) when those you believe in come through as they did in Madrid. Like our heroes, be a champion against the narrative.