Cristiano Ronaldo was on target at the Bernabeu but a fantastic display from goalkeeper David De Gea and a goal from the impressive Danny Welbeck helped Manchester United secure a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with Real Madrid.
Welbeck put United in front after 20 minutes with a neat header from a corner, only for Ronaldo - the former darling of Old Trafford and the subject of much of the pre-match hype - to level with an even better attempt 10 minutes later as he hung in the air masterfully to head past De Gea.
United had to endure almost constant pressure from a Madrid side unbeaten at home in 33 games in all competitions but almost claimed a vital second after 72 minutes when Robin van Persie struck the bar and then seconds later wasted an fantastic opening in front of goal.
With former Atletico Madrid goalkeeper De Gea making save after save in his home city to mark his best performance in a United shirt, the Premier League leaders would have been content with a score draw that gives them a good chance of progressing after the second leg at Old Trafford on March 5.
United deployed a surprisingly attack-minded XI, with Welbeck, Shinji Kagawa and Wayne Rooney all supporting Van Persie in attack. However, the biggest shock was at the back with the omission of Nemanja Vidic. Phil Jones was fit to play in midfield, with Rafael tasked with shadowing Ronaldo - a task that Ferguson referred to as "the biggest challenge of his life".
Madrid, deprived of captain Iker Casillas due to a broken finger, started youngster Rafael Varane ahead of Pepe in defence, with Luka Modric and Gonzalo Higuain also on the bench. Ronaldo, scorer of 182 goals in 179 appearances since his £80 million world record move from Manchester to Madrid, was stationed on the left, with a brief to roam and find space.
There was plenty of that in an admirably open start to the match, with Madrid's physicality giving them an early edge. Sami Khedira dragged a shot wide inside two minutes following some nice interplay from Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil, while Angel Di Maria wafted another drive past the post and Ronaldo drilled one wide from 20 yards.
Fabio Coentrao went even closer after six minutes when Rio Ferdinand scuffed a clearance straight to the Portugal international, but after curling a delicious shot towards the far corner he was denied by a quite brilliant save from De Gea as the keeper dived full-stretch to brush the ball against the post with the very tips of his fingers.
However, rather against the run of play, United found themselves 1-0 up after 20 minutes. Welbeck pulled away from Sergio Ramos to meet a corner from Rooney and produced a fine headed finish to exploit some desperately poor marking from Madrid and claim his first ever away goal in the Champions League.
Welbeck was United's most lively player - and had another effort fortunately tipped wide by Lopez - but too many of the visiting side were unable to resist Madrid when in full flight. Ronaldo, typically, went close on a number of occasions, with De Gea also looking sharp to prevent Ozil from scoring from a tight angle, and on 30 minutes the Portugal star brought his side level with a deserved equaliser.
When a cross was delivered from the left wing, Ronaldo rose majestically above Patrice Evra, appeared to hover in the air and powered a header out of the reach of De Gea. It was a brilliant combination of athleticism, technique and execution from a talent nurtured at Old Trafford and his celebration was respectful.
WATCH RONALDO'S HEADER IN 3D
Madrid were undoubtedly the superior side, with a rattled Rafael struggling at right-back for United and Jones unwisely barging into Di Maria in the box. No penalty was awarded, with Di Maria's reputation for simulation perhaps being factored in, but it was a nervy moment nonetheless and United finished the half under real pressure as Ronaldo fizzed a vicious drive just over the bar.
The barrage continued after the break with Ronaldo and Di Maria forcing De Gea into regular action, with the latter on one occasion taking a neat pass from Ozil, controlling on his thigh and then swiping the ball just wide of the near post with his left foot. As the chances continued to come, De Gea excelled again when making a fantastic save with his feet to deny Coentrao at the back post.
United were having to settle for sporadic counters but one such attack almost brought tangible reward. Evra found himself goal side of the culpable Varane, who then clumsily brought his fellow Frenchman to ground and was arguably fortunate to avoid a red card as play continued.
Madrid's tempo dropped though and United went so, so close to taking the lead for a second time. Rooney slipped in Van Persie with a cute pass to the right of the box and the striker's ferocious effort was touched onto the bar by Lopez. Seconds later, Van Persie was free in front of goal after being played onside by Xabi Alonso but his poke past Lopez was too weak as Alonso cleared off the line.
United were growing ever more authoritative but they still relied on the wiry De Gea to keep Madrid at bay, the young keeper throwing himself to his right to save from Khedira as the game entered its final stages.
There was still time for Van Persie to have a low effort tipped round the post by Lopez in second-half injury time but a draw in Madrid, and an away goal, gives the Premier League side a good chance of progressing to the quarter-finals nonetheless.
MAN OF THE MATCH
David De Gea - Manchester United: The Spaniard has been placed under almost unprecedented scrutiny since arriving at Old Trafford in 2011 but this was a stunning riposte to his critics. A succession of fine saves saw him keep Madrid at bay.