Last night saw Manchester United and Real Madrid, two of the world’s biggest clubs, square off in the decisive second leg of their Round of 16 tie of the Champions League. United added to their advantage first, pulling ahead 1-0 until United winger Nani was sent off in the 56th minute. With United down to 10 men, goals from Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo put Real Madrid through to the next round.
Manchester United and Real Madrid battled to a 1-1 draw three weeks ago in Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. With the tie heading back to Manchester’s Old Trafford, many thought United had the upper hand. With the first half ending 0-0— a final score that would send United through— and with United looking the more comfortable of the two sides, it looked like United were making the most of their advantage. When Madrid captain Sergio Ramos’s own goal put United ahead 1-0, that advantage was solidified.
Then this happened:
Now, I think most would agree that Nani’s challenge was obviously dangerous play and rightly deserved a yellow card, but I think most would also agree that a straight red seemed harsh given that Nani seems to be trying to bring the ball down with his foot rather than challenging Alvaro Arbeloa for the ball. Here’s the immediate reaction from the Guardian’s minute-by-minute, written by Barry Glendenning, for example:
NANI’S BEEN SENT OFF!!! That’s a strange decision from a referee who has form as a card-happy official. The Manchester United winger contested a high ball with Alvaro Arbeloa and caught the Real Madrid full-back in the midriff with a high boot, but it didn’t look a sending off to me.
Regardless, United had 10 men and a one-goal lead to defend. A wonder-strike from substitute Luka Modric and a beautiful build-up goal between Mesut Özil, Gonzalo Higuaín and Cristiano Ronaldo put Madrid ahead 2-1. Madrid goalkeeper Diego López had a remarkable second half and that put Madrid through to the next round.
Personally, as much as I was disappointed United weren’t going through, I was more disappointed that the match was so heavily influenced by a controversial referee’s decision. That being said, as I’ve read many apoplectic United fans raging about how United were robbed, it shouldn’t be forgotten that even with 10 men and even with the ref ignoring a late penalty call against Sergio Ramos, United had plenty of chances to draw level, and win the match.
[In hindsight, the ref also ignored a Rafael handball that would have been a penalty as well— maybe even another red card — DK]
All of the controversy aside, the match itself brought up some interesting points.
First, because Sir Alex Ferguson seemed to get his line-ups and tactics spot-on to start the match, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Wayne Rooney was left on the bench until late in the second half. While Rooney didn’t exactly cover himself in glory defensively in the first leg, it was still a massive decision to leave him out— especially when his replacement, in essence, was 37-year-old Ryan Giggs, who made his 1,000th senior appearance. Giggs played well and more than justified his inclusion, but that’s not really the issue. Was this just a one-off decision from Ferguson or has he lost trust in Rooney? Could this be a sign that Rooney may be off to Paris St. Germain or elsewhere? Reports out of Germany have said that Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski, who has been linked with both United and Bayern Munich, may be headed to United after talks with Bayern have cooled.
Second, I know José Mourinho and Ferguson are supposed to have a friendly relationship, something I’ve been somewhat skeptical of, but Mourinho’s comments after the match were surprisingly soft. Here’s a couple of choice remarks:
“I want to be honest and to be honest is to say that in my opinion the best team lost. But that’s football.”
“After the two goals I knew what is Old Trafford, what is Sir Alex Ferguson as a leader and what he can do from a mental point of view. We could not control the ball by possession, which frustrated me. I thought we should but we could not.”
Regarding Ferguson’s decision to omit Rooney from the side:
“I think Sir Alex has won the right to have every decision acknowledged as correct and every decision should have no question mark. He is the best, he has created history. You are nobody and I am nobody to put a question mark in front of him. His team was very well organised.”
Now, of course, Mourinho is through the round, it costs him nothing to be generous in victory. That said, it would be difficult to describe him, historically, as humble. He could just as easily have focused his comments on Madrid and shied away from talking about the controversy. After the sending off (and after Ferguson’s blood had lowered to a simmer,) Ferguson and Mourinho could be seen on the touchline, hands over their mouths, exchanging polite conversation almost as if Mourinho were being conciliatory. Of course the two no longer face one another directly or indirectly in the same league every week any more, but I was still surprised by how amiable they were towards one another, especially in the heat of such a controversy-filled match. Could it be that they really are friends?
Finally, a word about not celebrating goals against your former club. Anyone who follows The Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast has heard contributors roundly dismissing footballers not celebrating against their former clubs as condescending and in some cases (think Shaun Wright-Phillips against Chelsea) ridiculous. Jamie Redknapp wrote a column about this very thing today.
For me, when a player is basically dumped by a club like Wright-Phillips was by Chelsea or Adam Johnson was by Manchester City, I think it’s a little ridiculous to not celebrate your moment of triumph. On the other hand, Cristiano Ronaldo scored in both legs of the tie with United and downplayed his celebrations both times and I for one didn’t feel as though he were pitying us, I appreciated it.
Perhaps I’m a football romantic, or perhaps this is simply one area where my overriding cynicism has yet to bleed into, but in this day and age, there aren’t actually that many ways a footballer can show a hint of feeling. We all complain when we get the generic, template-style answers from athletes, but these days if a player speaks fondly of another club, it’s assumed he’s angling for a move there. Or, for instance, when Emmanuel Adebayor scored for Manchester City and raced the length of the pitch to celebrate tauntingly in front of his former club, Arsenal’s, supporters, he was crucified, but at least we could be sure he was being true to his feelings.
If players are now not celebrating because it’s become taboo to do so, then yes, I think it’s ridiculous. United fans still adore Ronaldo. Everything he helped accomplish at the club is fondly remembered and when Ronaldo speaks of United and especially Ferguson, he does so fondly as well. So when he scores a goal and doesn’t celebrate or when he moves on in the Champions League but bothers to say he’s disappointed to have had to knock United out I take it for what it is— simply a nice gesture. Do we really have to look into it any more than that?