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Refs, Real And Ronaldo – Madrid Knock United Out Of Europe

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Now, where do I start? What should have been a memorable night for the fantastic football on show, two European giants at the top of their game, will be ultimately remembered for a flick of the boot and a flash of red.

In the hours following Manchester United’s last 16 second leg Champions League tie against Spanish heavyweights Real Madrid, Twitter was alive with debate about the decision that changed the course of the match.

Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir’s decision to send off the Nani for the home side has been widely questioned, with former players turned pundits, journalists, current players and other referees pitching in their opinions. The fact of the matter is, whatever feeling you have towards Manchester United, the loss of a man turned an achievable task, and a potentially great night for English football into close to an impossible dream.

It has probably been forgotten by many people, in amongst the controversy, that United were comfortably in the game. Possession statistics in the first leg of this tie at the Santiago Bernebeau were heavily in Madrid’s favour, but the tables were turned in the first hour of this match – Madrid still had a lot of the ball, but were set up to play more than just on the counter-attack.

The headlines before the match had begun were about Sir Alex Ferguson’s some would call brave decision to leave out Wayne Rooney, one of the Premier League’s star performers of the last decade. Nani came in not as a direct replacement but he did have the freedom to play higher up. Rooney has not been at his influential best for much of the year, and it is the Dutchman signed from Arsenal, Robin van Persie, who has grabbed the attention. Supported by Danny Welbeck, and with Ryan Giggs continuing to offer a lot at the age of 39, on his 1000th senior appearance for club and country, United were not short of attacking threat.

Both keepers were in inspired form throughout the match. Diego Lopez, who has been deputising for the injured Iker Casillas, was assured for much of the night; one lapse when he could only push a shot from Nani back was rectified by an excellent save from the follow up.

At the other end, his compatriot for United David de Gea is visibly growing in confidence, and he did not put a foot wrong all night. With a settled defence in front of him, he is proving his worth to the side and is looking more and more like the player Sir Alex knew he had signed from Atletico Madrid. He could do nothing about a stunning strike from the ex-Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Luka Modric, or indeed Cristiano Ronaldo’s match-sealing tap-in, both of which came after the sending off.

The first half was an even affair, with chances at either end. Former United star man Ronaldo, returning to Old Trafford with Real for first time since his move to Spain, was kept relatively quiet by Rafael and Patrice Evra in either full back position, as he drifted across the pitch looking to make space for himself.

United, holding a 1-1 lead from the away leg, and a crucial away goal, aided their chance of winning the tie when they took the lead shortly after the interval. Nani took the ball off the exciting young Real defender Raphael Varane, sent it across the area where Welbeck got the slightest touch, but Sergio Ramos turned the ball home. Advantage United.

But only 8 minutes later, a tournament-defining moment sapped the energy from United. Nani, eyes on the ball, caught ex-Liverpool full back Alvaro Arbeloa with a challenge that was high, but would usually be punished by a booking at the most. The whole of Old Trafford was therefore stunned when a card of a different colour was produced by Cakir.

Sir Alex Ferguson was incredulous, and even Real manager Jose Mourinho could not believe his side’s fortune. It seemed it was only a matter of time before Real Madrid would make their advantage tell, and less than 10 minutes after the incident, Modric struck a fierce, swerving 20-yard drive past off the inside of the post and into the net. Madrid were almost there, and Ronaldo scored one of the most simple goals of his career to put the tie to bed.

Rooney, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia all came on and battled in vein, including having a stonewall penalty turned down at the start of 5 minutes of stoppage time, and Lopez made a couple of world class saves to break United hearts. There will be no chance of a treble for the Premier League leaders and FA Cup quarter-finalists, but the heart they showed after going down to ten men showed the passion to make it a memorable season.

Real Madrid go through to the quarter-finals and United are out. It hurts, and it will do for a while to come but that’s football. Ronaldo returned to a good reception, and to his credit didn’t celebrate his winner. One fan even rang 999 to complain about the red card. It was that sort of night.

By Daniel Matcham @boymetworld91