There were some sublime individual performances during the Super Cup tie in Skopje - notably from Real's Isco, Toni Kroos and Gareth Bale.
For the Reds, debutant new signing Nemanja Matic looked perfectly at home in such exalted company and made a mockery of his apparent lack of match sharpness.
Yet, with United staring down the barrel of defeat, Marouane Fellaini was the man who changed the complexion of the game when he replaced Ander Herrera midway through the second half.
Often derided for his unconventional approach, Fellaini once more showed that he is a player for the big occasion with an impressive cameo from the bench that almost dragged United level.
Romelu Lukaku, who spurned one gilt-edged opening before he later pulled a goal back, looked a more imposing threat with his compatriot Fellaini up alongside him.
The two powerful Belgians gave Real centre backs Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane different problems to think about.
Fellaini, immense throughout last season's Europa League triumph, helped set up the goal with his unstinting work rate, scrapping for a loose ball and doing what he does best.
He never gives anything up and tried bravely to meet a Matic cross, sustaining a nasty head injury in a collision with Ramos in the process.
It was a painful blow and took several minutes to patch him up, which paved the way for seven minutes of stoppage time.
Once he was on his feet again, he returned to the fray and continued to cause problems, at one point even turning away from Luka Modric with a chest trap and flick.
He set up Marcus Rashford whose effort was saved by Keylor Navas and then called the shaky-looking Real keeper into further action with a header, as United pressed bravely - albeit ultimately in vain - to force extra-time.
The decision to turn to him with United on the ropes was derided by some fans, but he scored crucial goals in two cup semi finals last season and Jose knows the value of our no.27.
Booed after coming on as a sub at home to Spurs last season, Fellaini left the field with his name being sung in recognition of his efforts.
Fellaini may not be as glamorous or as stylish as some of his illustrious team mates, but he can upset any defence in the world and is a selfless team man.
Despite the vast strength in depth available in United's midfield, the Belgian proved that he still has an important role to play and looks set to feature in a big way in the coming season.