After the final whistle blew Tuesday night, ManU manager Alex Ferguson pointed at referee Cuneyt Cakir as ManU defender Rio Ferdinand applauded Cakir. Ferdinand wasn’t clapping in approval, however. He was acknowledging that Cakir’s red card to Nani in the 56th minute likely stole the Red Devils’ chances of besting Real Madrid at Old Trafford, and thus, moving on to the Champions League quarterfinals.
Until Nani’s departure, which left United with only 10 men against the Merengues’ 11, the team had been containing the red menace. Even with star striker Wayne Rooney out of the starting lineup — a decision by Ferguson that continues to perplex — ManU had kept Real Madrid frustrated and scoreless through the first half and the starting minutes of the second. Madrid’s demigod and former ManU golden boy Cristiano Ronaldo — playing against his former team at Old Trafford for the first time — had played relatively quiet after dominating the first match between the two teams just two short weeks ago.
The first goal of the night was a flop, delivered by a low cross from Nani that Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos kicked into his own goal. From then on, all ManU had to do was play strong defense and keep the Merengues scoreless, which they had been doing an excellent job at until the earth-shifting red card in the 56th minute.
Faced with playing against a team of 10 dejected men for the final 30 minutes, Real Madrid took the offensive and was back to form. Only 10 minutes after Nani’s red card, midfielder Luka Modrić fired a bending shot from 20-plus yards away that bounced off the goal post and into the net. The score was now even.
After three minutes that seemed like the blink of an eye, Real Madrid scored its second goal, this time from Gonzalo Higuaín’s cross that Ronaldo was able to tap in from the far side. The former Red Devil, who’d received a standing ovation when he took the field at Old Trafford before the first whistle, kept his promise and didn’t celebrate. Instead he walked behind the goal and raised his palms to the sky, either asking the small group of Real Madrid fans for calm or begging the thousands of ManU fans for forgiveness.
When Ferguson finally sent Rooney in at the 73rd minute, the injury inflicted had already taken its toll. Down a man and a goal, ManU seemed capable only of defending. After five minutes of stoppage time, the score was 2-1 (aggregate 3-2).
Manchester United’s dream of winning championships in both England and Europe were stamped out.
Real Madrid — whose own chase for the La Liga’s Copa del Rey is practically over — move on to the quarterfinals, hoping to add to its record as the winningest team in the Champions League’s 58 years.
The draw to see who’ll face who is set for March 15, and the first leg of the quarterfinals starts April 2.
[Photo by Pierre-Philippe Marcou/Agence France-Presse /Getty Images via New York Times]