The whole world will be watching. These were the thoughts that expressed by all those involved before Tuesday night’s Champion’s League, second leg clash between Manchester United and Real Madrid. Sir Alex Ferguson versus Jose Mourinho. The return of Cristiano Ronaldo. Ryan Giggs’ 1000th game. All these and more on what was the most hotly anticipated match for quite some time. The hype, tension and build up drew excitement from everywhere.
With the game set up at 1-1, it was anybody’s game. There were a few twists before the match had even kicked off, with Sir Alex making a surprising call with regards to his team selection. In goal, David De Gea started, with the familiar pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic ahead of him. At left back, stood Patrice Evra, with Rafael Da Silva on the right. In midfield, Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick played centrally, with Giggs making his 1000th appearance on the wings with Nani. Finally, up front, was Danny Welbeck and Robin Van Persie. No Rooney, Giggs starting and no Kagawa after his weekend hat trick. WOuld it be a master stroke of a decision or a tactical nightmare?
The first half was a different story to that told at the Bernabeu. Madrid had less space, Ronaldo found himself quieter as United organised at the back and refused to let the visitors through. On the other hand, Madrid pressed high up, ready to pounce on the slightest slip up, pressuring the ball and looking for ways to push the hosts into giving the ball away cheaply. United looked most threatening on the counter and arguably had the best chances of the half. Ryan Giggs justified the decision to start him, helping Rafael to mark Ronaldo, and pushing forward when he could. One moment saw him play a cross into the box with the outside of his foot in a show of what the Welshman is still capable of. After 20 minutes, United’s best chance of the half came when Giggs whipped in a corner, met by Vidic, his head smacking the lower end of the right post. Danny Welbeck tried to capitalise on the rebound but to no avail. At the other end, Khedira picked out Ronaldo from distance, only for Vidic to get back in time to block him before he could get a shot away.
33 minutes in, and Madrid had the ball in the net, only for a foul to be called against Ramos. Immediately after, the hosts break with pace, Van Persie getting a shot away from the left side of the box, Lopez only able to parry his effort but recovered well to block Welbeck’s rebound. And so it remained, tentatively placed at 0-0 going in at half time. With all to play for, a crowd in fine voice and a high standard of play, everyone was looking forward to what the next 45 minutes would bring.
The second half kicked off, and within minutes there was a goal. Rafael and Giggs linked up to play in Welbeck, eventually losing control, Van Persie then fired away. Varane hung on to the ball too long and was dispossessed by a committed Nani who played the ball across from the left, Welbeck getting a touch to the ball before coming off Ramos, who steered the ball by his own goalkeeper. 1-0 to Manchester United, Old Trafford in a euphoric state. Madrid responded with more pressure, although United’s back line held strong, putting in tackles and stopping the visitors getting any clear cut chances.
However, with just under an hour played, Nani and Arbeloa go down, a break in play for a couple of minutes. Nani left his foot high as he went for the ball, Arbeloa met him and went down from the collision. The referee waited before brandishing the Portuguese winger with a red card, to the shock of all besides the referee inside the stadium. Sir Alex was furious, Mourinho bewildered. The visitors responded, Modric was brought on to add another attacking option. Suddenly, Madrid were on the ascendancy and pushed further to exploit the one man advantage.
Indeed, 5 minutes later, that advantage was to pay off as the substitute rifled in a stunning shot from distance that curled, crashing off the post and nestling in the other side of the net. 1-1, would extra time be an option?
That question was swiftly answered with a resounding no, as Higuain played a shot across goal, with Ronaldo pouncing at the far post to make it 2-1, requiring United to get 2 goals to progress. Sir Alex responded by bringing on Rooney for Cleverley, as Mourinho opted for a defensive change, bringing on Pepe for Ozil. United fought back, desperately searching for a possible way back into the match. However, Lopez was sharp, most notably producing the save of the match when a short corner was taken, Giggs played in a cross, Carrick headed the ball only for the keeper to show great reflexes and punch the ball out. There was time for the visitors to add another, Kaka’s shot hit the post and came back off De Gea, nearly going in, only for the Spaniard to react in time. The young goalkeeper also made a couple of good saves as the match drew to a close.
And so it was, with the sound of boos echoing out, Real Madrid progressed to the next round of the Champion’s League in a game that will be remembered, not necessarily by the brilliance of some of the play, but by the referees decisions that influenced it.
With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Right or wrong, the referee changed the game
That red card. In truth, I did not think it should have been a red card. Nani was trying to play the ball, and he was met by Arbeloa as he was challenging for the ball too. It is understandable that some might see it as dangerous but to warrant a sending off for it, seems far fetched. Given the reaction of the Madrid players to the whole situation, nobody saw it as anything malicious or wild. As well as this, considering the referee saw this as worthy of a sending off, one struggles to understand why then Arbeloa was merely booked for a, frankly, awful challenge on Evra in the first half. The mistakes were not all one way either. Rafael could easily have conceded a penalty for hand ball, and Evra should have been awarded a spot kick for a blatant foul.
However, it was that decision in particular that changed the game. With what many saw as a complete overreaction, it completely changed the direction the game took. It is no coincidence that so soon after it occurred, Madrid were on the ascendancy and were able to attack with far more threat than they had done for much of the game.
Of course, it would be daft to suggest that Madrid would never have scored if the sending off had not taken place, but it changed the game as a contest and effectively killed it soon after. In what was looked to as a huge occasion, ultimately, it was the referee that stole the headlines and this despite the efforts of the players and the goals that spectators got to see, most notably, Modric’s effort.
2) A superb effort all round
Up until the sending off, there was plenty to be proud of as United fans. The play was quick on the break, the team worked well together and defended strongly as a unit. It highlighted a lot about the team effort when Van Persie could be seen doing his defensive duties when he could. Vidic and Ferdinand were strong at the back, and once again De Gea pulled out the saves when he could. There were other notable performances as well, which will be touched upon in later points. Although the defeat was disappointing, fans could at least have gone to the game, and seen their team put in a strong effort, that for the most part, displayed an effective game plan.
3) Tactically spot on
United went into Tuesday’s game with a plan and stuck to it well. Defensively, they were organised, allowing very little room to be exposed and used the pace of Welbeck and Nani to break and try to catch out the opposition. In the first half, it worked very well, with Madrid restricted in their attacks United could get forward quickly, but were unable to take advantage. Despite the early pressure from Madrid, the back line kept their composure, and did their job well. Giggs and Rafael linked well to stop Ronaldo causing too much trouble.
The decision to leave out Rooney was perplexing to the majority prior to kick off, although with such an option sitting on the bench, he was a strong option to call upon. It could be argued he should have been brought on sooner, to add some presence to the midfield as United were suddenly under pressure. When he did come on he had an effect, but ultimately Madrid could not be broken down as the game wore on.
Ryan Giggs, on his 1000th, put in a brilliant 90 minutes, constantly running up and down the wing giving his all and being a leader when his side needed it most. The sight of both he and Ferguson trying to lift the crowd made for inspiring scenes, in a raucous Old Trafford.
4) Danny Welbeck – the pick of the bunch
On a night when Van Persie was quieter than expected, it was Welbeck who really shone, as he had done in the first leg. His pace gave the opposition defence problems all game, and his fight for the ball and constant threat for the attack made him the most noticeable, and most effective player. The young striker has come in for criticism for his lack of goals this season, but in years to come, the potential is there for him to be one of the most prolific strikers in the league. He linked up with all those who pushed forward, showing good partnership with Van Persie as he burst forward and could have grabbed a couple of goals on the night. It was an experience that he could draw upon in years to come, a night when he stepped up more than any other for the cause.
5) Ronaldo’s Return
Much was made of Cristiano Ronaldo returning to the ground where, as Sir Alex put it, “he arrived a boy… and left a man”. The Portuguese sensation was greeted with a welcoming noise when his name was announced prior to kick off. However, once play had begun, fans made sure not to give him an easy ride, booing him when they could and taunting him when he put a foot wrong. When he scored the winning goal, he chose not to celebrate, a display of respect for the club that helped him develop into the star that he is, before progressing even further at the Bernabeu. Fans will always think fondly of him and his time at Old Trafford from teenage frustration to goal machine and athlete. It must be said, though, that until the sending off, he was kept relatively quiet. The marking on him worked as he struggled to trouble the back line as much as he would have liked. It was a game in which Madrid were more restricted than when they were at home. It is difficult to know how well that would have worked as the game went on and fatigue set in, had their not been a red card, but whatever Ronaldo’s thoughts on his return, ultimately, he just wanted to progress. He may have fond memories of his time at Old Trafford, but sentimentality was never going to get him the prizes he so desires.