| Luis Figo (left) vies with Paul Scholes during Real Madrid’s Champions League quarter final match versus Manchester United at the Bernabeu Tuesday. (AFP)
John Bull was put to the sword by the magical matadors of Spain at the Bernabeu Tuesday. England’s finest were overwhelmed by the pure class in possession and unremitting work-rate of Real Madrid, who scored through Luis Figo and Raul twice to seize control of this Champions League quarter final (briefly reported in Wednesday’s Late City edition).
In thought and deed, particularly when the ball was under the spell of the exceptional Zinedine Zidane, Real were a class apart from United. Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s riposte seemed an irrelevance, giving United only the faintest of hopes for the second leg in a fortnight.
Bookings for Gary Neville and Paul Scholes exclude them from the return meeting, although even at full strength and full steam United would struggle to handle a side inspired by Zidane and exuding threat from left-back to right-wing.
The night was dominated by the white of Real.
Men against boys, sorcerers against apprentices: Real toyed with United brutally, spiriting the ball around Ferguson’s players with bewitching ease. Not until the 52nd minute when Van Nistelrooy poached a reply did United look involved. By then, Real had already struck thrice.
Real’s fantasy football guided United into an enveloping nightmare that even Van Nistelrooy’s goal could not wake them from. Zidane was sensational, guiding moves around the Bernabeu as if it were his private fiefdom, using all that fabulous technique for the good of the team and always working, working, never dipping in his diligence.
Raul was again the rapier, slicing through the English defence with those fine passes and deft touches. Figo also applied all his arts and crafts to Real’s rich work.
Heavyweights against middleweights. If this had been a prize-fight, the referee would have stopped proceedings at half-time to save a battered, humiliated United further punishment. Led by the French conjuror, Zidane, arguably the most accomplished footballer bestriding Planet Football, Real could have been four goals to the good by the break. Two seemed almost an insulting return such was the quality of the Spaniards’ football.
The wrecking ball that is Real’s forward momentum first swung through United after 12 minutes. Technique, ambition, accuracy and vision were all staples in this surge, Figo working the ball to Zidane on the edge of Fabien Barthez’s area, United backpedalling desperately.
Zidane checked, off-balancing Wes Brown, allowing the opening to arise. Then, calmly but confidently, Zidane transferred possession back to Figo, whose right foot sent the ball curling around Gary Neville, over Rio Ferdinand and Mikael Silvestre and into the net. Barthez could only watch in frustration.
A crowing Castillian public watched in delight.
Figo’s wonderful goal will have meant more to him than simply his 20th goal in 95 appearances in European club competitions. If Real are intent on bringing in David Beckham, exploiting his rich talent and commercial appeal, then Figo’s place in the starting line-up of this extraordinary team would be in jeopardy. If this was a fight for the right, Figo’s industry down that flank, and his goal, eclipsed Beckham’s contribution.
Also the creator, Figo released Ronaldo through on goal after 20 minutes and the Brazilian was clearly brought down by Brown. Anders Frisk waved play on and then, remarkably, ignored Barthez’s obvious handling offence two yards outside the box.
Spanish jeers soon disappeared. A second goal was fashioned for the Bernabeu’s pleasure in the 28th minute and it was another gem for the Real collection.
Again Zidane played the pivotal part, guiding Raul through after Paul Scholes had been caught in possession by Roberto Carlos, danger doubling by the second. Rio Ferdinand attempted to intervene but he resembled a policeman arriving hours after a heist. Raul had struck, lacing a left-footed shot between Barthez and the post.
United were paying for poor touches, for not using what little possession they enjoyed, notably early on when Scholes went close. Three minutes after the break, Real showed their English guests how to take chances. Raul sent Figo racing down the right and the Portugal international’s cross was delivered superbly, swept back to Raul just outside the area. Again pure technique coloured every touch. His right foot killed the ball’s momentum and his left did the rest, sending the ball spinning past Barthez.
Outclassed, United still showed their character, seeking to achieve a mission impossible. When Gary Neville crossed from the right, Ryan Giggs’ snap-shot drew a close-range save from Iker Casillas but Van Nistelrooy was on hand to head home.
Real remained in control but United had their moments, notably a Giggs volley and Van Nistelrooy hook-shot that were both clutched impressively by Casillas. They were shots in the dark.
It was not simply the goal tally that grew so alarmingly for United. Entries in the cautions’ columns of the names of Neville and Scholes exclude them from the second leg. It may not be Real’s last visit to Old Trafford this season. The final, surely, awaits this team of all the talents, the technique and the temperament.
Real Madrid (4-2-3-1): Casillas; Salgado, Hierro, Helguera, Roberto Carlos; Flavio Conceicao, Makelele; Figo, Raul, Zidane; Ronaldo (Guti 82).
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Barthez; Gary Neville (Solskjaer 84), Ferdinand, Brown, Silvestre (O’Shea 57); Beckham, Keane, Butt, Giggs; Scholes; Van Nistelrooy.
Referee: A Frisk (Sweden).