It was a night of controversy at Old Trafford on Tuesday as Manchester United crashed out of the Champions League with a 2-1 defeat (3-2 on aggregate) to Real Madrid, with nearly all of the post-match analysis centring on referee Cuneyt Cakir’s decision to send off Nani after 55 minutes for a high boot on former Liverpool full-back Alvaro Arbeloa with United 1-0 to the good at the time.
But there was plenty more to discuss than that incident, and Shaun Curran has picked out the main talking points from a high-octane night….
Okay, then, THAT red card….
Where else to start other than the decision that undoubtedly turned the game? Manchester United were, if far from cruising, in control of the tie after 55 minutes, one goal to the good and looking comfortable, albeit with 35 minutes left on the clock.
Cue Nani’s high boot on Arbeloa and the intervention of Cakir, and the tie slipped away from United’s grasp.
The decision left Sir Alex Ferguson ‘too distraught’ to talk, the players, especially Rio Ferdinand (never one to miss out on the haranguing of a referee), under orders not to speak and the press at their hyperbolic worst, with one ‘newspaper’ seeing fit to follow the referee back to Istanbul in order to question him about his decision.
Like all things at the top level of football, it has been blown out of all proportion, and this writer’s take on it is that while the decision was undoubtedly harsh – nobody would have argued about a yellow card – is it the moral outrage that many people have built it up into?
A booking would have sufficed, but in the modern game if you’re going to put your studs into somebody’s chest, especially with a cheeky second-motion flick at the end of your movement, you are asking for trouble, particularly in the Champions League.
Should Ferguson be taking a portion of the blame for the defeat?
While many observers seem willing to blame United’s defeat squarely on the referee, can it not be argued that Ferguson played a part in the eventual downfall of his team?
Yes, his tactics were working excellently until Nani’s red card, but it seems that Fergie was too busy seething at the decision to think straight, and his indecision proved costly.
Forget the clichés about it being harder to play against ten men – it is not, as Madrid proved.
But just because you go a man down doesn’t mean you automatically have to concede two goals within ten minutes of it happening and in refusing to change his side – either its shape or personnel – Ferguson did nothing to arrest the panic that struck his team, who had clearly lost their heads, just like their manager.
By contrast, Jose Mourinho, as he does so frequently and so brilliantly, acted immediately, hauling off Arbeloa for Luka Modric, moving Sami Khedira to right-back and allowing the superior talent of Modric to operate in the extra space behind Higuain.
It outwitted Ferguson and proved critical as he was rewarded with a brace of tie-winning goals within minutes. Ferguson made his move after 73 minutes, but the damage had been done by then and there must be a part of the Scot that in the cold light of day privately wishes he’d dealt with the sending off more decisively.
Mourinho: post-match interview or job interview?
It is not very often you see Jose Mourinho in conciliatory mood, but that rarely seen side of the Portuguese’s personality has been in full public show ever since the draw for this match was made in December.
Throughout the build-up to both legs, Mourinho was careful not to say anything that might come across as inflammatory, yet he took his newly-found and hitherto hidden pacifying manner to new levels during his post-match interviews last night.
“The best team lost,” Mourinho claimed, which is a phrase he has never used before in over a decade of management, unless in relation to his own team.
When asked about Ferguson, the Portuguese said: “He is the best, he has created history. You are nobody and I am nobody to put a question mark in front of him.”
Quick, somebody pass me the sick bucket.
The cynical might suggest he didn’t want to upset his future paymasters, and the cynical could well be right.
But as Roy Keane pointed out afterwards, the humility “didn’t suit him” and I think the sooner he gets back to snarling, paranoid, blinkered, absurd Mourinho, the better for everybody.
Talking of Roy Keane, is he now persona non grata at Old Trafford?
As many have pointed out, Roy Keane knows a thing or two about dangerous play and endangering an opponent, so it did come as a surprise that he – alongside that other arbiter of fair play on the pitch, Graeme Souness – argued so intensely that the decision to send off Nani was the correct one.
Of course, it was less surprising to see Keane look at Adrian Chiles, Lee Dixon and Gareth Southgate as if he was about to attack them, Hannibal Lector-style, on live TV, but his stereotypically forthright opinions have caused consternation among the fans who used to adore his every kick (of an opponent), with many accusing the former United captain of holding a grudge over the acrimonious manner of his Old Trafford exit in 2005.
What Ferguson will think of it is anyone’s guess.
Well actually, we know exactly what his former manager will think of it, but it was left to ex-United star Paddy Crerand to put the boot in like only Paddy Crerand can, claiming Keane “was in a minority of one” and that Crerand knows best because “I have played in a European Cup final, Roy didn’t”.
Talk about kicking a man where it hurts….
And what now for Wayne Rooney….?
In among all the furore about Nani’s sending off and Ferguson’s refusal to speak to the press, what at one stage in the evening threatened to be the main story of the night has slipped by relatively unnoticed.
When Wayne Rooney’s name was omitted from the United starting line-up there was an audible gasp up and down the country, with the inevitable question coming soon after: what does that mean for Rooney’s Manchester United future?
Ferguson’s history of dispensing with big-name players as soon as he feels they are no longer required is legendary, and with Jim Leighton, Paul Ince, Jaap Stam, David Beckham and Ruud van Nistlerooy among the star names that have seen the hairdryer blow them all the way out of town, Rooney could be fearing the worst, especially as Ferguson’s comments about the striker all season long have not exactly been too complimentary.
There is no doubt Ferguson was making a statement by excluding the England striker from United’s biggest match since the 2011 Champions League final and Danny Welbeck’s continued development has to put a huge question mark over the ex-Everton star’s future.
By the time Rooney was called upon from the bench, his side were 2-1 down and there was nothing he could do to salvage the situation.
The same could now be true of his Old Trafford career.