Manchester United's Champions League campaign ended in disaster. One misplaced foot was all it took to destroy Sir Alex Ferguson's game plan that looked to be sending Real Madrid out of the competition.
But we know all that.
The Red Devils' European post-mortem certainly reveals a giant slayed before its time. While Jose Mourinho's men advance to the quarterfinal stage, Ferguson's squad need to take heart from an impressive European showing that will stand them in good stead for the future.
Although decent displays against Madrid and an easy run through the group stage hardly matters now, Ferguson should feel extremely positive about the performance of his young players throughout the competition.
A transformation has taken place. Individuals such as Danny Welbeck, Raqfael, Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley have shown they are able to compete with the best players in the world. Even Nick Powell—who started the away fixture against Galatasaray—highlighted his qualities in an environment that tests like no other.
United may have lost the tie that was meaningless to their group position, but it's not often Ferguson is afforded the opportunity to take his youngsters to "Hell" without fear of them getting gobbled up by the occasion.
The Champions League has provided an outlet for a number of these youngsters to thrust themselves into Ferguson's thinking for the first team. Reports suggested Danny Welbeck was surplus to requirements at Old Trafford during the January transfer window. Other clubs circled as fans wondered whether or not the Englishman could ever compete with the likes of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez for a spot in the front line (via The Independent).
Two stunning performances against Real Madrid pinpointed exactly why Welbeck is needed at the club. Pushed out to the right wing, United's 22-year-old not only played with confidence, he halted one of the best midfielders on the planet.
Xabi Alonso couldn't influence either tie with Welbeck breathing down his neck—a fact amplified by Mourinho's decision to bring on Luka Modric at Old Trafford. To top it off, Welbeck's opening goal reminded everyone that he has the ability to step up in vital moments, as we've seen with England.
The press reaction to Phil Jones' combative display in the Bernabeu was a sight to behold. Jones quashed the threat of Marouane Fellaini in the Premier League match with Everton and traveled to Madrid as United's new saviour. In Spain, the 21-year-old halted Cristiano Ronaldo so effectively that United came away with a real shot of winning the tie.
Both of these youngsters have taken a huge step towards maturity as footballers. Ferguson's best sides have been made up of individuals who possess traits that are feared all over the world. Ryan Giggs has speed, Paul Scholes has radar vision, Roy Keane has power and enough madness to give any opponent trembling knees.
We're now seeing the same thing happen with United's current generation. Even Tom Cleverley and Rafael—who have racked up a considerable amount of games this season—continue to improve under the spotlight. This is invaluable experience at this stage in their careers.
Everything will be a little more familiar when United prepare for the next Champions League campaign. The characteristics of Welbeck, Jones and other youngsters will be focused on more readily. Great performances against Madrid will be reminisced—reminding the opposition they have a real task on their hands to oust Ferguson's team from the competition.
Manchester United's Champions League season may have ended in disaster, but the first steps of transformation for many of the club's starlets has taken place. A transformation that—a few years down the line—will see them outlined as world class talents and the backbone of United's future success.
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