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Real Madrid vs Manchester United - An emotional roller coaster

When the UEFA Champions League round of 16 fixtures were announced, the countdown to the nights of February 13, 2013 and March 5, 2013 began. Contests between Real Madrid and Manchester United have always been emotional affairs, but these couple of matches would be in a different league as they would mark the first time Cristiano Ronaldo would face his former club – Manchester United – after leaving their ranks back in 2009 and the first time Cristiano Ronaldo would return to Old Trafford after leaving Manchester United respectively.

The first leg of the tie was an immense event. It was a wonderful match which couldn’t have been scripted better. As I settled down on my usual sofa at 1:15 am, I felt a flurry of emotions run through my mind as Cristiano Ronaldo followed his usual routine of jumping up and down once at the end of the tunnel and walking out onto the pitch with a look of confident determination on his face. As a United fan, I felt something nag at me from deep inside. At that very moment, I knew that Cristiano Ronaldo was going to score. The referee blew his whistle and the long-awaited match began. Madrid were on top at once as David de Gea was tested on more than one occasion within the first 15 minutes by Fabio Coentrao and Ronaldo. Sir Alex Ferguson has a reputation of always getting his team selection spot-on in big matches. That reputation wasn’t done any harm that night as surprise participant Danny Welbeck scored in the 20th minute with a well-directed header. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen. United were on top with the all-important away goal.

As Madrid once again settled into their rhythm of passes, that nagging thought in the back of my mind grew stronger. I watched in silence as the ball sailed into the box. Surely, it would sail over the incoming Ronaldo to safety. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Time stood still as Cristiano Ronaldo jumped, levitated and nodded the ball past David de Gea into the back of the net. Mixed feelings of respect, pride and awe prevailed as I watched the man who had scored so many for United, walk away with a modest celebration. The Bernabeu was reduced to a shocked silence before roars of approval began. Cristiano Ronaldo had done it on the big stage once again by scoring a crucial goal against his old club.

United, however, grew in confidence as the match progressed and launched a few counter-attacks of their own, which drew Jose Mourinho to the edge of his technical area. The half-time whistle blew with the scores level as the Bernabeu roared its approval at Ronaldo walking back into the tunnel surrounded by his former team-mates. Madrid maintained their high-octane attack after the break and De Gea was in action again, with an athletic stop at the far post to block Coentrao once more. Robin van Persie had a couple of great chances to give United the lead, but uncharacteristically, he scuffed one onto the bar while the other was cleared off the goal-line due to the lack of power on it.

As the referee blew the final whistle, I watched as Ronaldo stopped dead in his tracks and looked up at the heavens. Overcome with emotion, he congratulated each of his team-mates and embraced each of his former team-mates. As if in slow motion, he walked towards the technical area. I watched with growing respect as Cristiano Ronaldo stepped into the open arms of Sir Alex Ferguson. I wiped a tear from my eye as the away fans roared:

Viva Ronaldo
Viva Ronaldo
Running Down The Wing
Hear United Sing
Viva Ronaldo 

“What a header. Unbelievable. You can’t stop that, I’ve got to say, with that leap and spring and he holds himself in the air. And the power in the header. I came in at half-time and said: ‘Patrice did you not challenge for it’ but I’ve seen the video. I thought we did well and it was difficult for Cristiano playing against us, his old team. Maybe there was a little bit of emotion attached to it but he was still a big threat for them.” - Sir Alex, on Cristiano’s header.

”It is a club where I played for six years and I have a very special affection for them. I always want to win but I have respect for the people have given me so much”. - Crisitano Ronaldo, on playing against Manchester United.

March 5, 2013 was a long, long day. 1:15 am seemed so very far away. Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho proclaimed on Monday that, “The world will stop to watch this tie.” Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford and Ryan Giggs‘ 1000th appearance for United were the highlights of the night. The stage was set wonderfully with the scoreline in the balance at a precarious 1-1. The first shock of the night as I settled into my usual sofa was the United starting line-up. Wayne Rooney had been left out and Luis Nani was to start. I somehow convinced myself that it was all for the best and Sir Alex knew exactly what he was doing. As Cristiano Ronaldo walked out of the tunnel and onto the pitch, Old Trafford rose as one in acknowledgment as their hero returned home. The Turkish referee blew his whistle and the match was underway. It began much like the first leg did, with Madrid in possession immediately. Within the first 5 minutes, Sir Alex’s team strange team selection was completely justified. 39-year-old Ryan Giggs once again rolled back the years as he and Rafael made short work of Cristiano Ronaldo.

A couple of minutes later, Old Trafford witnessed a familiar site. Cristiano Ronaldo standing over the ball for a free-kick in a good position. I took in a deep breath as the referee blew his whistle and Ronaldo made his way towards the ball menacingly. A chorus of  jeers resounded across the Stretford End and I let out a sigh of relief as the ball thudded into the wall and was eventually cleared. Danny Welbeck once again justified his selection as he ran at the Madrid defense from every angle possible with Robin van Persie and Nani for company. The evergreen Ryan Giggs ran rings around the Madrid defense on the right flank as United had a flurry of  opportunities, ending with Nemanja Vidic hitting the post. “How did that not go in?”, I thought to myself. The first-half was the beautiful game at it’s very best, with both sides exchanging relentless blows as the world looked on. United went into the half-time interval still holding the upper hand.

The second-half commenced as everyone watching felt that this match would go down in history as one of those great European nights, but referee Cunnevt Cakir had other ideas. After United took the lead on the back of a Sergio Ramos own-goal, it looked certain that United would go through to the next round. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Luis Nani, who was having the game of his life, became the scapegoat in Cakir’s twisted script. Unaware of the incoming Arbeloa after a clearance, Nani raised his boots and collided into the midsection of his fellow competitor. Immediately, both sets of physios were on the field tending to their wounded warriors. There were no appeals of any sort from any of the Madrid players for further action to be taken against Nani, apart from the free-kick. Time stood still as Nani got up, turned to look at the referee, and saw red. Old Trafford rose in unison as Sir Alex Feruson charged down the stairs into the technical area. The incident left even Jose Mourinho shocked as he patted Nani on the back as the latter headed down the tunnel.

In spite of the scandalous decision, the game had to go on. Luka Modric took advantage of the shell-shocked United players to curl a shot past David de Gea to level the tie. A few minutes later, United’s former hero put the ball into the net to give Madrid an undeserved lead. Sir Alex sent on Wayne Rooney to replace a battle-worn Tom Cleverley. A 10-man United took the fight to Madrid as Sir Alex influenced Old Trafford to roar it’s approval. Ryan Giggs led from the front as United won the ball back in key areas and pushed forward. Could this turn into another one of those great United comebacks?

The clock struck 90 minutes and the fourth official held up the board signalling five minutes of added time. The Stretford End led from the front as Old Trafford began to chant “United! United! United!” as the match entered Fergie time. United continued to push forward as Diego Lopez was forced into action from another Nemanja Vidic header. As the 93rd minute ended, Jose Mourinho walked toward Sir Alex, gave him an embarrassed hug and walked off into the darkness of the tunnel. Cakir blew the final whistle to a chorus of jeers ringing around the Theater of Dreams. The pompous Turkish internaitonal was immediately mobbed by the furious United players. The ever-gracious Madrid players shook their competitors’ hands and made their way off the pitch. Cristiano Ronaldo spent an emotional moment with Wayne Rooney as they shared a hug which will be etched in my memory for a very long time. Rio Ferdinand summed up the evening with a sarcastic shake of Cakir’s hand.

The scars of this defeat at the hands of Real Madrid will long be at the forefront of every United fan’s mind. However, the tie did show numerous positive signs for United. Danny Welbeck, Nemanja Vidic and Ryan Giggs starred as Sir Alex once again won the tactical battle. Despite his sending-off, Nani might be offered a new contract after an encouraging first-half performance. The second-half showed the grit, the determination and the never-say-die attitude that defines Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United. Ryan Giggs’ 1000th match was indeed the proverbial silver-lining in a tie marred by a certain Turkish referee.

To be honest, I did not see what Nani did, but these situations happen in football” – Cristiano Ronaldo.

“I think United have a right to surround the referee, he has cost them the biggest prize in football.” - David Moyes.

Vincent Kompany, Gary Neville, Edwin van der Sar and Joey Barton all piled criticism on Cakir via their respective Twitter accounts, while Roy Keane strangely seemed to agree with the decision. A gracious Jose Mourinho admitted in the post-match press conference that the decision had strongly influenced the game and the best team had lost. As United’s treble dreams were shattered, I felt distraught. I pay my respects to Jose Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo, express my congratulations to the rest of the Madrid squad, and extend a well-deserved rude hand-gesture to Cunnevt Cakir along with some condolences for his ruined career. I salute the spectacle of February 13, 2013 and regret the debacle of March 5, 2013.

United will rise again.

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