A big reason why Manchester United now have a good chance of knocking Real Madrid out of the Champions League is also a big reason why Alex Ferguson has had so much success in 26 years at the club: because in tight spots, when the need for results is acute, Ferguson has faith in young people.
Seeing potential in youthful inexperience, instead of systematically treating it as a dangerous liability, isn't a talent given to everyone but is one Ferguson has in abundance. He is a "man manager" in the true sense of the term, because he is so good at judging when boys are ready to become men and at helping them and United flourish and profit from that transition. It is as though Ferguson has made it his mission in life to make a constant fool of the BBC television pundit, former Liverpool captain Alan Hansen, who said many, many trophies ago in 1995 that Ferguson "can't win anything with kids."
It was no coincidence that the three youngest members of Ferguson's starting 11 in Madrid — goalkeeper David De Gea, goal scorer Danny Welbeck and Cristiano Ronaldo-thwarter-in-chief Phil Jones — were also his most spectacular and tireless performers on Wednesday night. The reason we know it was no coincidence is that Ferguson has done this time and again: trusted young players who then repaid him tenfold.
Together, the veterans Ferguson fielded — Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Michael Carrick — have played nearly 1,500 times in United colors. They are known quantities, hardened by the repeated high pressures of matches like this — the No. 1 and No. 3 most lucrative clubs in football fighting for a quarterfinal berth in Europe's richest club competition.
But De Gea, Jones and Welbeck have not yet reached the milestone of 100 games each for United, let alone games this titanic. Jones isn't 21 until next week; De Gea and Welbeck are only one year older than that.
Coaches with less vision than Ferguson might have regarded their youth and relative inexperience as too large a risk. They might have opted to play the more experienced Robin van Persie alone up front, instead of partnering the 29-year-old former Arsenal captain, as Ferguson did, with Welbeck, a rangy, quick forward from United's youth academy. Other coaches didn't snap up Jones from Blackburn Rovers. Coaches less sure than Ferguson of their own judgment might not have continued to believe that De Gea, in particular, would come good after his tough first year in Manchester when critics panned the Spanish 'keeper recruited from Atletico Madrid to fill the vacuum left by the retirement of Edwin van der Sar.
Before the round of 16, first-leg match against Real, Ferguson was asked to evaluate the progress of De Gea, sitting beside him at a news conference. His response could almost have been a potted history, a how-to guide, of how Ferguson has allowed youth to bloom at United.
"He came to us a young man, very young, not used to the English game, couldn't speak the language, still to mature physically," he said. "It's like a young kid making his first steps forward. He wobbles. Gets up. Wobbles again. Gets up. Eventually walks. And the boy's walking now."
In the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, which feels so gladiatorial with the fans baying from the tiers, De Gea was immense. United might have foundered after just five minutes without De Gea's diving finger-tip save that diverted Fabio Coentrao's goal-bound shot for Real onto his post.
No goalkeeper could have stopped the spectacular header from Ronaldo that made the score 1-1 after 30 minutes. But that Madrid did not get another was in no small part due to De Gea's safe hands and blocks.
Jones chased after Ronaldo until he was literally red in the face. He did as well as anyone could be expected against a player so threatening that Ferguson joked in a TV interview of wanting to trip up Ronaldo if he could get away with it.
Thanks to Welbeck's header in the 20th minute, United got the away goal that makes it the favorite to go through to the next round when Real travels to Old Trafford on March 5. All told, this felt like a night when Ferguson's young players came of age and proved how wise he was to ask so much of them.
Bringing on Ryan Giggs — 40 later this year, still looking 30 — as a second-half substitute rammed home the fact that this has been Ferguson's way for decades. Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gary and Phil Neville, Ronaldo — Ferguson helped turn them from boys into men, too. How well they turned out. The likes of Jones, Welbeck and De Gea are Ferguson's next generation. And there'll be others, even after Ferguson has retired, because his way is now United's way.
As he said in his press conference with De Gea, "What we're good at is developing people."
Drinking at the fountain of youth has clearly done wonders for Ferguson, too. He'll turn 72 this year? Hard to believe from his buoyant mood in Madrid. Compared to the solemn-looking Jose Mourinho, Real's manager 21 years younger than Ferguson, the elder statesman seemed almost insolently chirpy.
Young at heart and more than willing to give youth a chance. For Ferguson, a winning combination.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester