Real Madrid benefited from a game-changing call early in the second half to come from behind and beat Manchester United 2–1 at Old Trafford on Tuesday to advance to the Champions League quarterfinals.
Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir controversially sent off Manchester United winger Nani after 57 minutes. The Portuguese international went for a 50-50 ball with Real Madrid’s Alvaro Arbeloa. Nani’s foot caught Arbeloa in the chest.
Certainly, the United player’s foot was high, but he clearly had eyes only for the ball and no malice was involved. To everyone’s surprise, Cakir issued Nani a straight red card.
At the time of the incident, United was a goal to the good with Sir Alex Ferguson’s game plan working to perfection. Real Madrid’s Ronaldo had barely managed a kick, and United were in the ascendancy.
United were understandably shell-shocked by the dismissal, while the visitors reveled in the space they had thus far been denied. Enigmatic midfielder Luka Modric was brought off the bench to help exploit that man advantage.
The creative Croatian not only did that, but brought his team level with a rasping drive from just outside the area that swerved wickedly and went in off the inside of the post about 10 minutes after Nani’s expulsion.
And of course, it just had to be that former United hero Cristiano Ronaldo would pop up with what proved to be the winning goal just three minutes later.
Real Madrid manager Joe Mourinho had almost a full squad from which to choose his starting eleven, with only skipper Iker Casillas still unavailable through injury. Diego Lopez would therefore continue to perform the goalkeeping duties for the visitors.
At the pre-match press conference Ferguson had said, “You know what to expect against a team with Ronaldo in it and we have to try and curtail that. It won’t be easy because he does it every week. It’s not an accident with the lad.”
Ronaldo himself was excited about returning to his former home ground commenting via his Instagram account, “I’m looking forward to return (sic) to Old Trafford. I’ve so many good memories there. It will be an exciting game and our goal is to win.”
For United, Phil Jones was out of contention with an ankle injury. Robin van Persie, Patrice Evra, and Danny Welbeck all sustained minor knocks in the 4–0 win against Norwich last Saturday, but all three were ready to start against Real.
Rio Ferdinand had recovered from the flu and was preferred to Jonny Evans as Nemanja Vidic’s partner at the heart of the United defense.
The United boss also went for experience in midfield putting Ryan Giggs in from the start to make his 1,000th appearance in senior football. The Welshman will turn 40 in November, but last week he penned a new one-year contract which will keep him at Old Trafford until June 2014.
However, Sir Alex’s team selection did provide one huge talking point with Wayne Rooney only starting on the bench. This decision will have brought back memories of 2007, the last time these two sides met in this competition, when United went three down with David Beckham sitting on the bench.
“Becks” came on to score twice and inspire a revival that saw United win a remarkable match, but still go out on aggregate.
United Takes Control
The match began as a game of cat and mouse with neither side wanting to concede the advantage. Real enjoyed plenty of possession, but it was United that was first to threaten when on 21 minutes Giggs took a corner and a fine header from Vidic rebounded off the post.
Welbeck was there for the rebound but in an offside position. However, the England striker did not make a clean contact and failed to beat Lopez, so it all became academic.
On 34 minutes, Lopez pulled off two smart saves in quick succession to deny van Persie and Welbeck.
The start of the second half found United again pressing forward. On 48 minutes, a van Persie effort was blocked and the ball was picked up by Nani on the left near the goal line.
His low cross took a slight deflection which wrong-footed Sergio Ramos who was unable to avoid putting the ball into his own goal. It was no more than United deserved with Real having failed to significantly trouble David De Gea at this point.
Significantly, Ronaldo had been kept unusually quiet.
Then nine minutes later came that refereeing decision that literally turned the game on its head. Nonetheless, full credit must be given to Mourinho and his team for immediately putting United under siege before the home side had recovered from the shock of the dismissal.
Bringing on the skillful Modric to exploit the extra space was a master-stroke. He has not exactly set the Bernabeu alight since the expensive move from Spurs, but within 10 minutes of the Croatian’s arrival on the field, United’s Rafael had made a last-ditch stop on the line, Modric himself had wiped away United’s lead, and then Ronaldo converted Gonzalo Higuain’s cross from a tight angle at close range, and it was suddenly a completely different game.
With two away goals, Real Madrid had ensured that there would be no extra time or penalties and United would have to score twice, with 10 men, to win.
That was the cue for Wayne Rooney to finally make his appearance with a mere 17 minutes plus injury time to try and conjure a miracle a la 1999 against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final.
He might have managed it as well, had he volleyed a ball from close range into the net instead of over the top after a fine Lopez stop off van Persie. In fact, Lopez produced at least three top-drawer saves in the last 10 minutes to preserve his team’s advantage.
“Independent of the [red card] decision, the best team [Manchester United] lost,” Mourinho said right after the match. “We didn’t deserve to win.”
Mourinho praised United’s efforts. “United were physically very strong. We suffered too much while they had ten men and the fact that our goalkeeper Diego López was our best player in that time says it all,” he said on UEFA.com.
“We’re extremely disappointed,” said Manchester United assistant manager Mike Phelan. “Everybody was sat in the dressing room there wondering what had happened and why it happened. It’s a very distraught dressing room and a very distraught manager.”
History on Madrid’s Side
So Real Madrid has now prevailed in four out of their five meetings with United in the Champions League and European Cup. The only time United came out on top was in 1968 when they went on to lift the trophy.
Many believe the “Busby Babes” were good enough to have overcome the Spanish masters in the 1958 semifinal, but the Munich air disaster intervened and so we will never know.
In many ways it is a shame that these two clubs have met at such an early stage of the competition making the rest of the tournament in danger of becoming an anticlimax.
All eyes will now switch to the Barcelona clash with Milan to see if Lionel Messi and company can turn that one around and join their great Spanish rivals in the last eight.
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