It may not be able to match the nine European titles of Real, but this is a club which has made the final in 2008, 2009 and 2011 on top of its three successes.
Real's history and appeal worldwide is well known, but United are catching up both on the pitch and off it.
Finacially, United continue to reach new audiences and according to Austin Houlihan, Senior Manager in the Sports Business Group at Deloitte, the club is on track to overhaul the Spaniards.
"Manchester United continue to successfully leverage their global brand," he said following the publishing of the annual Football Money League table.
"The new world-record seven-year shirt sponsorship deal with General Motors will double the revenues the club receives from its shirt partner in the first season of the new deal in 2014/15.
"This combined with new Premier League broadcast deals from 2013/14, which will deliver incremental distributions of between £20 million ($31.7 million) and £30 million ($47.5 million) per club, will help Manchester United push the two Spanish clubs above them, for a top two ranking."
While money matters, there can be no doubt that the biggest bargain was Real's decision to throw piles of cash at United for Ronaldo.
It was his equalizer on 30 minutes which caught the eye, his ability to hang in the air and generate an unfathomable amount of power to head the ball into the net remains a joy to behold.
From there on it was simply wonderful to watch.
Robin van Persie hit the crossbar and had another effort hacked off the line, while the much maligned David De Gea produced an astonishing performance in the United goal, fending off every effort which came within his grasp.
Both teams had opportunities, Real might have even been reduced to 10 men had the referee not afforded Raphael Varane a huge let off for his foul on Patrice Evra as last man.
The sequel at Old Trafford on March 5 cannot come quickly enough following this latest installment in the fascinating duel between the master and his apprentice.
Mourinho will remember all too well how he danced down the Old Trafford touchline when Porto shocked United back in 2004 on its way to winning the competition. This tie is not over.
"They defended well and the result is open," Mourinho told Sky Sports. "If you ask me percentages, I don't change one single number - 50/50.
"We can score more than one goal there. They had two big chances in the second half, but chances out of context because we were chasing the game and they were just defending.
"This is the Champions League and there are two matches, home and away. They did their match and they did it well."
United, unbeaten in its past 16 matches and 12 points clear at the top of the Premier League, will now hope to make home advantage count n the second leg.
"There were a lot of incidents in the game," Ferguson told Sky Sports.
"We had lots of chances in the match and played some good attacking football at times but we did not get the possession we should have had.
"Real won possession without question, but it takes us back to Old Trafford with a great chance.
"It will be very open. I think we'll score at Old Trafford. We have a big job on our hands but it is definitely within our grasp."
In the night's other game, Borussia Dortmund was forced to come from behind on two occasions to secure a 2-2 draw at Shakhtar Donetsk.
A minute's silence was held following reports that four people died when a plane made an emergency crash-landing in Ukraine according to the Russian news outlet, state-run RIA Novosti.
The Donetsk-bound charter flight was reported to be carrying football fans from Odessa to Donetsk for the contest.
Once the game did get underway, it was Shakhtar which took the lead through Dario Srna before Robert Lewandowski brought Dortmund level.