Manchester United were forced out of the Champions League by a shocking referee's decision on Tuesday night, as Nani's undeserved sending off changed the entire tenor and shape of what had been a tense and fiercely contested match. Seeing a game-ending foul on a play that would likely not have drawn even a yellow card in the Premier League, Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir took the game into his own hands and almost singlehandedly gave the two legged tie to Madrid 3-2 on aggregate. The sending off took much of the drama out of what to that point had been a white hot contest, with Real Madrid possessing more of the ball but United looking the far more dangerous attacking side. Even Wayne Rooney's late game introduction, necessitated by the Englishman's surprising pre-game omission, was not enough to save the Reds on a night from which they deserved more based on the quality of their play.
Although the two teams entered the locker rooms scoreless at the half, it was United's early second half goal that saw the home side rewarded for their valiant and disciplined defensive effort. Although the pre-game talking points had been all about Madrid's counter-attacking abilities and questions surrounding United's midfield, it was the Red Devils who looked the more dangerous team on the break and Los Blancos who appeared the more labored of the sides in their midfield play.
The game changer was the referee. Used to overseeing games in the Turkish League, referee Cakir was overwhelmed by the occasion and willfully altered the outcome in Madrid's favor. Although Nani's foot was raised, it was clearly in an attempt to bring down a wayward clearance effort -- and the winger showed no intent of harming unseen Madrid defender Alvaro Arbeloa, who -- to his credit -- did not roll around the pitch in the exaggerated manner favored by many of the visitors.
Coming less than ten minutes after United had assumed control of the tie meant the home side were forced to play with ten men for over 30 minutes. WIth Jose Mourinho at the helm, veteran Real watchers knew the Special One would make changes, and the first substitution he made altered the game within ten minutes. The newly introduced Luka Modric curled an outstanding ball past the fingertips of an outstretched David De Gea to equalize the match in the 66th minute, before Cristiano Ronaldo tapped in a Gonzalo Higuain cross three minutes later to seal the contest and see Madrid through to the next round.
Even the visitors' bossman agreed his side had benefitted from the referee's shocker, claiming after the game that "the best team lost tonight." While the comment may have been aimed at currying favor with United's Board of Directors, it was a typical spot on assessment by Mou, who likely also sympathized with the cruel fate bestowed upon his friend and counterpart Ferguson. Although United fought back valiantly, and threatened numerous times even when down to ten men, in the end the second road goal handed the home side an impossible task.
The match which ended so prematurely began rather slowly. Several giveaways opened the match as both sides displayed nerves shredded by three weeks of anticipation. The first threat of the game came from the visitors, as Ryan Giggs conceded a free kick, but Cristiano Ronaldo's effort was snuffed out by a brave Tom Cleverley standing firm in the wall.
Early on United looked to play the ball over the top, and found space behind Madrid's vaunted defense. Eleven minutes had been played before Higuain curled a shot wide of the bar from the top of the box, the closest either team had come to an actual shot on goal. Slowly United began to turn up heat of their own, with the pace of Danny Welbeck and Nani and the guile of Robin Van Persie and the ageless Giggs causing problems.
United nearly found the net in the first half, Nemanja Vidic connecting with a Giggs' corner, but Welbeck was flagged offside when he managed to put the ball on the goal line after the Serbian's header clanged off the post. United played with verve and energy and Madrid were back on their heels for some time, though truth be told there wasn't much separating the two sides in the game's first half hour.
Van Persie tested Madrid 'keeper Diego Lopez with a sharp shot from the left side of the box, and the goaltender not only answered the Dutchman's question, but Welbeck's follow up, as well. Although played at a blistering pace, the contest slowed down a bit before the interval -- and even more than that for Angel Di Maria, who was replaced by Kaka after becoming the evening's first casualty near the 43 minute mark.
The match was still finely balanced as the players walked back onto the pitch to begin the final 45 minutes of United's Champions League season. Its was less than five minute before Old Trafford erupted, though, due to a nice move that included RVP, Welbeck and Nani, although it was the winger's standout play on the touchline that kept the ball alive, and a misdirected own-goal from Sergio Ramos that stranded his 'keeper and handed United a 1-0 lead on 56 minutes.
It' was just as the Old Trafford crowd were warminged up that the referee took control of the match. The absurd decision fired up a seemingly depressed Mourinho, who called on Modric to take advantage of the situation, sacrificing Alvaro Arbeloa in the process. Although Sir Alex responded by riling up the crowd, the Scot could only look on helplessly as Modric blasted a perfectly shaped ball past De Gea to even the scoreline and the aggregate.
As difficult as the task may have been prior to the Modric score, it became next to impossible when Ronaldo tapped in Higuain's through ball to give the Madrillenos an undeserved lead -- the side that looked well beaten now having the trump card of two road goals.
This is farlieonfootie for March 6.