David De Gea returned to the city of his birth on Wednesday to face one of the most potent attacks in Europe, with his ever-growing army of doubters awaiting another calamity.
It was De Gea's most pressurized night yet, but the 22-year-old responded with a collection of stunning saves to deny Real Madrid and ensure United left the Bernabeu with a 1-1 draw and the advantage.
De Gea was United's best player in Madrid. All the talk heading into the game was of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, but while Rooney was lost to the madness of midfield and Van Persie saw his night defined with a guilty miss, De Gea repaid the faith of his manager with a display of his instinctive brilliance.
The Spaniard made his first notable contribution just six minutes in, diving to his left to tip a curling shot from Fabio Coentrao onto the inside of the post. The ball came back behind De Gea and out again, and Madrid came within the faintest of touches of an early lead that would have changed the complexion of the contest entirely.
Then came the game's two goals—Danny Welbeck rolling off Sergio Ramos to head United ahead, before Cristiano Ronaldo launched into the air like football's answer to Michael Jordan and used his glistening forehead to steer the ball expertly past De Gea.
Neither goalkeeper, De Gea or Madrid's Diego Lopez, had a chance.
From there, both sides can look back on a game they might have won or lost, 4-1. Both missed several good chances, both had lucky escapes and both had big appeals turned down—Madrid for a penalty when Angel Di Maria went to the ground, United for a foul and potentially a red card when Raphael Varane appeared to tug at the shirt of Patrice Evra.
The former was a stretch; the second may well have been given on another night, by another referee.
De Gea came to United's rescue again on the hour mark, this time using his flailing legs to deflect a Coentrao effort at the back post. It wasn't conventional goalkeeping, but it kept United at 1-1 and it kept the ball out when you suspected many other goalkeepers might not have.
His third of a hat trick of outstanding saves came from Sami Khedira with 10 minutes to go, but there were plenty of others along the way, as Madrid registered eight shots on target and took 28 in total (Eurosport-Yahoo!).
De Gea had done his job commendably, but United's regret will be that they failed to capitalize at the opposite end. Van Persie was unlucky to hit the bar with a right-footed effort on 72 minutes, but should have scored moments later with just Lopez to beat and the goal at his mercy.
It was the kind of opportunity the Dutchman has been snaffling up all season, but this wasn't to be his night.
This was De Gea's night. Madrid were the better side at the Bernabeu, with Ronaldo a constant threat and managing to live up to the hype that surrounded his participation, but United emerged with an away goal and with the tie weighted in their favor.
If Sir Alex Ferguson's men complete the job at Old Trafford, De Gea will have played a huge part in their progress.