Experienced winners were everywhere at the Bernabeu on Wednesday night. From the two managers, Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho, to the key cogs in Spain’s European Championship-World Cup-European Championship hat-trick, to the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs, playing in his 21st Premier League season and boasting 12 league titles.

But it was Manchester United’s younger stars that shone brightest as Ferguson’s men grabbed a solid 1-1 draw. While it was a true team performance, goalscorer Danny Welbeck (22), the tireless Phil Jones (21 this month) and the impressive David de Gea (22) produced displays that suggested Manchester United have plenty more big European nights ahead.

Much has been made of the fact that the Old Trafford youth academy has not promoted as many promising talents to the first team in recent years. But that does not mean that Ferguson’s squad lacks that element. The club splashed out on Jones and De Gea, knowing that both had major development ahead of them yet limitless potential. Ferguson’s team selection hinted at his desire to counter Real Madrid’s free-flowing attack with a focus on stamina and athleticism.

Welbeck’s contribution was hugely significant, given that he has struggled in front of goal this season, admittedly in limited minutes due to the form of Robin van Persie and Javier Hernandez in particular. Not only did he take his goal clinically from Wayne Rooney’s corner, but his work-rate and pace troubled Real Madrid all night. With his ability to run in behind defences, his first leg performance confirmed that he can rise to the big occasions and can be counted on to spearhead the attack for future Manchester United sides.

Jones, meanwhile, missed a chunk of this season through injury and almost became a forgotten man at Old Trafford with all the other options at Ferguson’s disposal. But since his return, Manchester United unquestionably look stronger. At Tottenham and at home to Everton, Jones’ energy was critical in protecting the back four and his tireless motor allowed him to cover across to protect Rafael at right-back.

On Wednesday, he did it again, helping a wobbly Rafael to keep Cristiano Ronaldo at bay – in fact, the Portuguese’s excellent headed equaliser came from one of the times he ventured away from the Real Madrid left flank. Jones was everywhere, making sliding challenges to slow rapid attacks and showing a keen sense of positioning to provide vital clearances. Many see him as a centre-back in the next era at Old Trafford, but he could also be the club’s next midfield enforcer or defensive midfield shield as his game continues to develop. Michael Carrick is certainly benefitting from more mobile, fresher legs alongside him, allowing the former West Ham man to concentrate on ball retention.

As for De Gea, he has been on the receiving end of some scathing assessments, often rightly so – but no one could complain about his handling as Real Madrid rained in shots and crosses. His first half save from Fabio Coentrao was world class and he certainly did not seem like a man dealing with extreme scrutiny. Back on Spanish soil, he looked at home.

"David was excellent and produced three or four really top saves", Ferguson said. "He’s improving all the time. I’m pleased for the boy. This is a difficult place to come and we would have taken 1-1 before the game."

Giggs added: "It’s good for him to come back to Madrid and put in such a good performance. He is a top keeper and his shot stopping is second to none. He is maturing all the time and he has showed that.”

Frankly, glowing praise should have been directed at Jones and Welbeck too.

This was Manchester United’s biggest game of the season – and one where they knew there was no margin for error. Mistakes would be punished. Against that backdrop, the Premier League leaders put together one of their grittiest displays of the season while also looking a big threat on the counter-attack. And Ferguson’s faith in his young charges was rewarded.

The tie is still wide open, as both Ferguson and Mourinho were quick to point out, but in one of the world’s most famous stadium, Manchester United’s young stars gave fans a glimpse of the future. With De Gea, Jones and Welbeck forming part of the team’s spine, the next era of Old Trafford appears to be in safe hands.

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