FOX Soccer Exclusive
Real Madrid KO's Manchester United
The year was different, the result was the same.
Once again, Real Madrid came into Old Trafford, once again they walked out with the spoils with a 2-1 against Manchester United (3-2 on aggregate) courtesy of a stupendous goal by Luka Modric, and a merely routine but winning goal from United’s former talisman, Cristiano Ronaldo, to advance to the Champions League's quarterfinals stage.
The opener, an own goal by Sergio Ramos forced by a cross from Nani, will remain consigned to history’s trashcan. This time, this game will be remembered for a decision that Manchester United’s assistant coach called “incredible,” and that Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso called “difficult.”
“The best team did not win here tonight,” said a subdued Jose Mourinho after the game. “I doubt that 11 v 11 we win this match.”
This was a game that hinged on a call made by Turkish referee Cuynet Cakir, who sent off Nani early in the second half for a charge, studs high, into the midsection of Alvaro Arbeloa. It was dangerous play, and the ref sent off the United midfielder.
It was a decision that was immediately chewed over by all in attendance, and millions worldwide. The former Manchester United hardman Roy Keane thought it was the correct call, and said so. His former manager, Sir Alex Ferguson clearly did not.
“It speaks volumes that I am out here to speak with you tonight,” said Phelan, who was sent out to face a packed press hall in Ferguson’s stead. “I have left a distraught dressing room and a distraught manager.”
Both managers expressed regret that the game did not play out with a full complement of men. United’s players walked through the mixed zone saying nothing to the reporters: only Nani piped up to explain that they had been ordered to say nothing.
The sad fact is the decision will distract from what was an enthralling match, filled with some sublime play. Luka Modric’s goal, a brilliant shot off the post, past a bewildered David de Gea was equally the result of a lack of pressure from the home team and sheer skill. United’s goal came after a blistering spell of pressure that forced two stops from a frazzled Diego Lopez. Sadly, this is all overshadowed by a foul – there is no argument it was that -- from a player with a history of making bad ones.
It was immediately evident that we were watching two of the best attacking teams left in European play. Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck were persistent, nagging threats, forcing some superb saves out of Diego Lopez and more than one scintillating tackle out of the young Raphael Varane.
United got the tactics right, keeping Ronaldo off the ball and thus off the boil, and for large stretches of the game, were in total control. Lopez, under heavy pressure early, kept it from being a runaway, first spoiling a strike by van Persie, then brilliantly stopping the follow-up.
For all the danger Cristiano Ronaldo represented in theory, precious little was actually presented by the Portuguese star until midway through the second half – when he was presented with ten men. This was not a show on par with his two games against Barcelona.
Xabi Alonso acknowledged that his team produced a better performance after the sending off, and so did Mourinho.
“[United] were playing very well, they were aggressive and they were compact,” said Mourinho. “I am not speaking about the decision as I am not sure of it. I do think the best team lost.”
Some credit, however, should go to Modric. He replaced Arbeloa and immediately turned Real into a threat. Kaka, replacing the injured Angel di Maria, began to harass. Gonzalo Higuain was used to fine effect to prise United’s back line apart. And Mesut Ozil, working off Modric, proved to be too slick for United to handle.
Ozil and Higuain would combine for the winner, the German rolling a backheel into to Higuain’s path, for a low cross to meet Ronaldo at the far post. The finish was routine, the work that went into it was not.
But it is also true that after conceding the second goal, United began to play more like, well, Manchester United. Wayne Rooney, a baffling omission from the starting lineup, immediately drove the troops upfield and if not for then heroics of keeper Lopez – who made several critical stops – this would have been a far tenser finish.
In the end, the refs were booed off the pitch. Ronaldo received lukewarm applause. United – and fans worldwide -- were left to wonder what might have been if they had kept all eleven men on the pitch.
“We felt comfortable, we felt we got the tactics right,” said Phelan. “Then, the game totally changed.”
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