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Mourinho gave Sir Alex a reason to stay

Manchester United v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Round of 16

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – MARCH 05: Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson reacts after Nani of Manchester United is sent off during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second leg match between Manchester United and Real Madrid at Old Trafford on March 5, 2013 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

In his 24 years reign as Manchester United manager, Sir Matt Busby twice contemplated retirement from management. The first time was when he was recuperating on a hospital bed shortly after the Munich air crash. The second time was when United lost 2-1 on aggregate to FK Partizan in the semi-final of the European Cup.

“We’ll never win the European Cup now,” said a distraught Busby in 1966 after losing the tie.

Last night, Sir Alex Ferguson was “too distraught to face the media” after his pursuit for a third Champions League trophy ended in defeat to Real Madrid. He sent his assistant Mike Phelan to the post-match media conference. It wasn’t just Ferguson; even the players were ordered not to speak to the media. The drawbridge has been pulled up, flags were lowered to half-mast, Old Trafford is under a self-imposed seize.

24 hours before kickoff, Sir Alex said, “You hope in a game of this nature that you are going to get the best refereeing performance, on the same level as the players on the pitch.”

And the match referee Cuneyt Cakir sent off Nani for kicking Alvaro Arbeloa. That is how the referee saw it. That is how the rest of the world saw it. On watching the subsequent replay of the foul, in Nani’s defence, it wasn’t intentional. Nani had his eyes on the ball and Arbeloa stepped in to challenge him for the ball. It was a 50-50 chance, but ended with Nani’s studs firmly imprinted on Arbeloa.

Ex-United midfielder Roy Keane called it “dangerous play” and said that the referee was right in sending him off. Twitter  imploded with tweets from United fans castigating Keane for siding with the referee. Cunyet Cakir’s history of sending off players – Terry, Balotelli, Gerrard and Cahill – belonging to English clubs was widely re-tweeted. And his first name was contracted to a one word expletive.

This is the narrative that has been developing so far. How United’s season will shape in the next two months, is the question that seems to have been forgotten.

It is important for United to not to lose sight of things. United are still in contention for two trophies. The season is not over yet. Sir Alex must not allow lightning to strike twice at Old Trafford, after what happened in the 2009-10 season. United showed so much promise that season despite selling two of its mainstay players – Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo. Wayne Rooney was in cracking form until he fractured his metatarsal, while playing against Bayern Munich. He returned for the second leg but was substituted after he aggravated the injury. Rafael da Silva got himself sent off in a match United could have won.

And sandwiched between the two Champions League legs was a league match against Chelsea. It was a title showdown and United lost the match, and drew the next game against Blackburn Rovers, giving Chelsea a healthy four-point lead at the top. United’s season ended within a span of two weeks. Now Chelsea will once again have a say in United’s future when the two sides meet in the FA Cup.

Against Madrid last night, Sir Alex knew United were the better side, and he will rue another missed opportunity. But fair play to Jose Mourinho and Madrid. He made quick substitutions after United were down to 10 men. He removed Arbeloa who was on a yellow card. He brought on Luka Modric to force United into submission. If Mourinho was auditioning to be Sir Alex’s replacement, then he couldn’t have done a better job.

But, this is Sir Alex Ferguson that we speak of. A manager to whom no bank can sell a retirement plan. He contemplated retiring in 2003, yes, but he airbrushed it from everyone’s minds and has been on a rolling contract ever since. His undying enthusiasm seems to have a knock-on effect on the players. Paul Scholes came out of retirement. Ryan Giggs seems immune to the daily wear and tear of a Premier League footballer’s life. Surely, this is not the end of Sir Alex.

Sir Matt Busby mounted one last assault o the European Cup and triumphed in 1968, winning the final 4-1 against Benifica. Maybe, just maybe, Mourinho did something he wished he hadn’t done by giving Sir Alex a reason to sign a contract extension.

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