When United were drawn against Real Madrid in the Last 16 of the Champions League we knew we had a battle on our hands. Whilst the Spaniards have failed to impress in La Liga there is no hiding the fact they currently have one of the best managers and squads in European football.
We may have breezed through our domestic season so far, despite not being too impressive for the first few months, but the Champions League is a totally different level, requiring more purposeful tactics and more solid performances. The last time Sir Alex Ferguson pitted his wits against Jose Mourinho in the Champions League we were victorious, with two fairly easy games against his Inter Milan side, who went on to win the Treble the following season. Still, Cristiano Ronaldo is more than capable of dragging any team over the finish line and to underestimate their capabilities would have been foolish.
With fifteen minutes played at the Bernabeu I was genuinely concerned, not just with our chances of progression, but with our chances of not being embarrassed. They saw so much of the ball and their attacks crashed down on us in waves. Our players held their nerve though and went ahead thanks to a Wayne Rooney corner which Danny Welbeck got on the end of. We’d got the away goal we’d all been desperate for. On reflection, one away goal was fairly (not totally) meaningless, as it was unlikely that we’d see a 0-0 at Old Trafford.
Ronaldo equalised, as you’d expect, and declined the opportunity to celebrate out of respect for his former club, again, as you would expect. Leaving the Bernabeu with a 1-1 draw was a decent enough result though and I was full of optimism for the return leg. In the league I like to see us blow our opposition apart but in Europe I’m always impressed to see us neutralise our opponents. Being able to soak up the pressure, even let them take the game to us, but still get the result you want is very satisfying. When Carlos Queiroz first started introducing these tactics for the Champions League I was appalled, much preferring that gung-ho ‘United way’, but I have a certain admiration for the more sophisticated tactics required to succeed on the continent now. We probably saw this at its best in the two legs against Barcelona in the 2008 semi-final when we stopped them from scoring and should have won both games 1-0 (if not for Ronaldo’s early penalty miss at the Nou Camp), despite them dominating possession. They passed from one wing to the other, rarely able to penetrate our back line, with us absorbing everything they threw at us. At the Nou Camp they managed six shots on target and at Old Trafford just three. It was clear we would need a repeat of this performance if we were going to get to the quarter-finals this season.
You can always feel the difference inside Old Trafford on the big games and Tuesday night was no different. The ground was full earlier than usual and the anticipation for what we were about to witness was huge. There had been plenty of fuss about plastic flags in the week leading up to the game but the Sir Alex Ferguson stand was happy enough to participate when the time came with “Bring on United!” being flashed on the scoreboards and chanted from the stands.
The game started well, despite the surprise of Wayne Rooney’s absence, with our players keeping their shape and David de Gea having next to nothing to do. He was the Man of the Match in the first game, making a couple of unbelievable saves, but Cleverley and Carrick worked hard in midfield and our back four was impeccable, meaning De Gea was much better protected. What added to our performance was Ryan Giggs playing like a man possessed and Danny Welbeck making the Real Madrid defence look uneasy whenever he ran at them. They were our best performers on the night, two players who’ve grown up in Manchester playing for our club, which should fill any fan with immense pride. This is what sets United apart from the other clubs at the top in England. The closest City have to a homegrown player is Micah Richards, a Brummie who grew up supporting Arsenal, who Oldham have a 20% sell on clause for after City snapped him up when he was a teenager. At Chelsea, the last player to come up through the ranks was John Terry, who made his début 15 years ago. At Arsenal they have Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs. In contrast, year after year United are competing for the title and in Europe with a group of academy products playing regularly in the first team squad. It was great to see two of them shine against Real Madrid, with Cleverley also playing his part, and Jonny Evans desperately unlucky to miss out on the starting line-up after such impressive performances in the league.
With two great performances against Real Madrid, I can only imagine what the fans in Spain think of Welbeck. In these games he showed what he is capable of. He has a great touch and really quick feet. Whilst not quite as much like Bambi as when he first broke through a few years back, gangly and all over the place, he still has a nasty habit of doing something brilliant then tripping up over his own feet. But he’s just 22-years-old and should have a bright future at this club.
At half-time and the score at 0-0 the nerves really started to kick in. You know you’re just 45 minutes away from being on top of the world or being totally gutted. Whilst I had probably more or less prepared myself for the possibility of a defeat, there was no way I was ready for how the game was about to unfold.
A few minutes after the restart we took the lead after Nani tried to find a red shirt in the box. The ball took a nick off Welbeck and if not for Sergio Ramos would have found Robin van Persie at the back post. Van Persie wasn’t presented with the opportunity to make amends for that painful miss at the Bernabeu though because Ramos put it in the back of the net for us. Despite losing the ball a few times in the first half, much to the frustration of some pockets of impatient fans, Nani had justified his inclusion.
Then, less than ten minutes later, Nani was sent off. You very rarely see that red card over the course of a season and become accustomed to seeing the ref waving around the yellow. It’s always fairly shocking when you see the red but I was absolutely gobsmacked this time. You usually get that feeling of dread before you see it, having watched one of your players make a crunching challenge or bringing down a charging striker when there’s no one else there to cover him. Watching the referee hovering around Nani when he was on the deck I was waiting for him to dish out a yellow card and I was pissed off enough with that. He was clearly just attempting to bring down the ball, he wasn’t even making a challenge, but according to Law 12, fine, it was a caution. It was dangerous. The only people claiming it was worthy of a red card are people who aren’t familiar with the rules. Unless you think there was an element of “brutality” to Nani’s delicate toes, it wasn’t serious foul play and it wasn’t a red card. That’s not opinion, it’s just the rules of the game. Maybe the referee, pundits and journalists should familiarise themselves with them, before telling us “it was a harsh red, but…”.
The players and the fans are united with their ‘never say die’ attitude and Rio Ferdinand said after the game it was the best atmosphere he’d heard at any ground throughout his career, but the prospect of 35 minutes against this well organised Real Madrid side seemed almost impossible. Mourinho acted quickly, bringing on Luka Modric, and five minutes later he equalised. It was a quality goal and there’s not much you can complain about. United should probably have closed him down faster but it was a top finish. Stunned from the red card and equalising goal, United found themselves 2-1 down a couple of minutes later. Vidic and Rafael didn’t get close enough to their men and we paid the price.
Just because you go down to ten men it doesn’t mean you forfeit the game though. Other teams have had a man sent off in tougher circumstances than that and they’ve gone on to score themselves and win. On a different night maybe we could have been one of those success stories. Maybe if Diego Lopez wasn’t in goal we would have been celebrating one of our greatest comebacks, but he made a couple of brilliant saves and Jose Mourinho claimed he was Man of the Match. The small details make all the difference and after the unjust sending off the game was still in our hands. But had Nani not been sent off I have no doubt we’d have gone through because the game was playing out just as we wanted, with Ferguson’s tactics working perfectly. There was a perfect balance to our game, with us able to keep them out, whilst also having chances at the other end. When Real Madrid were given the unfair and unjust advantage of the extra man, they adapted and went for the kill. They got their two goals then sat back, and fair play to them.
Anger from injustice is probably a better feeling than disappointment from not being good enough. Maybe the frustration keeps you awake a bit longer but once you get past that, whether that takes you a couple of hours or a couple of days, what you’re left with is much more positive. The Real Madrid games were the first test for this latest Ferguson team and they held their own. They stood toe to toe with one of the best sides in Europe and as Jose Mourinho correctly pointed out, the best team lost.
“Independent of the decision, the best team lost,” he said. “We didn’t deserve to win but football is like this. My feeling is that Manchester United were playing very well, were very compact and aggressive in a good way. I doubt that 11 v 11 we win the match. I know Manchester United are giants, not just physically but mentally.”
Our manager was too “distraught” to face the press, as revealed by Mike Phelan, which earned some derision from rival fans. Without getting too soft, I don’t like the thought of Fergie like that. Seeing him stood on the touchline after the sending off, getting the crowd going, urging us to be the clichéd 12th man (but on this occasion, the 11th man), you had to know how desperate he was. Who knows what his plans are but maybe he did or does intend to retire at the end of this season. Maybe this was his last chance of winning the European Cup and he had to see it taken away from him because of the incompetence of a referee. This man lives football and breathes Manchester United, so however gutted you are feeling, it probably doesn’t compare with his emotion right now.
Still, this was just one decision, one game, and United carries on, as it always does. I wouldn’t have fancied our chances against Bayern Munich this season anyway, I don’t think this team is quite ready yet. There’s always the off chance we could pull a Chelsea, get battered and still leave with the trophy, and I’d take winning the trophy any way than not winning it despite being the best. But there are other seasons and other opportunities, and if the manager had been thinking about packing it in at the end of the season, the silver lining might be that the bent ref has given Ferguson that extra hunger to carry on.
We’re 12 points clear and we’ve got an FA Cup quarter-final to think about. Robin van Persie has looked unfit over the past few weeks and with only Evra and Carrick playing more minutes than him in the league, maybe it’s time he was given a game off. Javier Hernandez enjoys scoring against Chelsea, with six goals in the nine games he’s played against them since signing for us, and could do with more playing time after being shunned for the Real Madrid games.
There’s no denying what a disappointment this week was but now our focus can be on winning our trophy back and possibly making it a double. City don’t have the distraction of Europe either so it won’t do our title chances any harm to be able to give the Premier League our full attention. In May, hopefully we’ll look back on Tuesday night as small blot on what was an otherwise truly successful season. Onwards and upwards. We’ll never die.