On United's exit in the Champions League
The stage was set. The game was brilliantly poised at 1-1. Everyone was watching. A fantastic game was expected – the hero of yesteryear coming back to his old stomping ground was the main plot; a war veteran playing for a thousandth time was a parallel track; who would advance to the quarter final almost became a sub-plot. It was poised for another one of those epic European nights.
The plots, sub-plots and the whatnot notwithstanding, the game ended 2-1 in Real Madrid’s favor. The returning prodigal son did score what was the winning goal. However, all the thunder was, in the end, stolen by a man from Turkey. It was not the coming of a flamboyant Portuguese winger that defined the game but the going (read: sending off) of a flamboyant Portuguese winger that turned the game on its head.
Real lined up with pretty much the same side as in Madrid, save for a single change up top; Higuain replaced Benzema. Sir Alex pulled off something of a shocker pre-match by naming Wayne Rooney on the bench. Giggs was indeed handed his 1000th game in senior football. It was Rio and Vidic who played at the center of defence, with Rafael and Evra playing on the sides. Carrick and Cleverley lined up in the center with Nani and Giggs on the flanks. Welbeck assisted van Persie up top.
As the game got underway, it was difficult to know who the home team was and who the away team was. Real had the lion’s share of possession, but they hardly looked like posing a threat. Many doubted the ploy of leaving Rooney on the bench and starting with the raw pace of Welbeck, but the plan was working wonders. With Real bossing possession, United looked very potent on the counter and had the better of the first half chances. The half ended 0-0.
Kaka was the one change in the first half; he replaced an injured Di Maria. United came out unchanged in the second half and began where they left off. They continued to frustrate Madrid and, not entirely against the run of play, scored through a Sergio Ramos own goal.
It was then that the game turned on its head. The ball was pinged back out of the United box and, on the right flank, Arbeloa came forward to gather it. The ball was at about chest height; perhaps a bit lower. Nani was running towards the ball, looking over his shoulder. He came in from Arbeloa’s side, eyes on the ball and stuck a leg out to control the ball. He caught Arbeloa. Nothing malicious whatsoever. Both players went down. The referee quickly rushed to the spot to check on the players. Both the physios were on the field. The players staggered to their feet. The ref made sure that the both of them were OK. He then reached into his back pocket and sent Nani off. To say that everyone at the stadium, and indeed, all over the world, were shocked, is an understatement. It was inexplicable.
Quite understandably, Sir Alex was livid. Jose Mourinho looked coy; embarrassed even. He sent on Modric, who promptly took the game by the scruff of its neck and scored with a spectacular shot on 66 minutes. The comeback was complete when the inevitable happened. Ronaldo got on the end of a Higuain cross to steer the ball into the net. 2-1. Job done. Real now sat back and absorbed the pressure.
Rooney and Ashley Young did come on but they had little impact. United, to their credit, never gave up. They kept going and in the closing stages, drew out some spectacular saves from Diego Lopez, who had a blinder in goal.
Real Madrid go through to the quarter final. Manchester United‘s dream of a treble is over; for another year at least. Jose Mourinho summed up the game the best: “Independent of the decision, the best team lost.”