Nani's red card opens door and Real Madrid defeat Manchester United

Inside Old Trafford

It was a night, ultimately, that can be added to the list of Sir Alex Ferguson's more harrowing moments as Manchester United's manager.

His players gave everything to overcome José Mourinho's team and they will always be convinced that the course of this match could have culminated in glory rather than the crushing inevitability of Cristiano Ronaldo inflicting the final blow.

They had been winning courtesy of Sergio Ramos's own-goal three minutes into the second half when the Turkish referee, Cuneyt Cakir, incensed Old Trafford by showing Nani a red card for connecting with Alvaro Arbeloa as he lifted his foot to control a high ball. That was the moment, with 34 minutes still to play, that the game suddenly lurched into Real Madrid's favour and Mourinho's players made sure, devastatingly, that it counted.

Luka Modric's contribution was enormous as he rifled in a wonderful equaliser after coming on straight after the sending-off, and Ronaldo's goal, eluding Rafael da Silva at the back post, followed within three minutes. Over the two legs he had reminded United of his brilliance and his contribution was telling on a night of incredible volume and high drama that ended with Mourinho shaking Ferguson's hand and disappearing down the tunnel with a minute still to play. Ferguson had left out Wayne Rooney but the scenes at the final whistle, encapsulated by Rio Ferdinand's sarcastic applause in Cakir's face, summed up that United blamed the referee rather than their own preparation.

These were supposed to be the games that were made for Rooney and, however it is dressed up, it does not say a great deal about how Ferguson regards the player's ability to shape the big occasions. His replacement, Danny Welbeck, has two goals all season but Ferguson evidently considered him the best man to fit in just behind Robin van Persie, trying to get into that long powerful stride but also sticking close to Xabi Alonso as the first line of supply to Ronaldo. This, according to Ferguson, was fundamental in his plan to muzzle Ronaldo, just as Jürgen Klopp had done the same with Mario Götze when Borussia Dortmund took four points off Madrid in the group phase.

It needed a night of structure and tactical discipline and, at the heart of it, was a 39-year-old with the beginnings of a bald spot and 1,000 professional games now on his clock. Ryan Giggs played like a man determined to have a considerable impact on another milestone night. His energy was remarkable, frequently chasing Ronaldo back to add to Rafael's diligent efforts to make a better fist of controlling Madrid's best player than he had in the Bernabéu. For long spells they managed to subdue the man Old Trafford's public announcer had ushered in as "the magnificent No7". By half-time, indeed, there were even the first signs of distress on Ronaldo's face and the sense that it was not going as he had expected.

For the most part, United let their opponents have the ball, defending in numbers and restricting space. Yet this should not be confused with ploys of conservatism. When they had the chance to break, they did so with speed and penetration. Welbeck, full of hard running, epitomised United's effort and once he refines his finishing he will be an extremely accomplished player. For now, he is still at that stage when he snatches at the kind of chance that fell to him just after the half-hour when Robin van Persie's shot came back off the Madrid goalkeeper Diego López.

Welbeck probably deserves the benefit of the doubt for the opportunity that came earlier when Nemanja Vidic's header from Giggs's corner struck López's left-hand post and ricocheted into the striker's path. The ball came at Welbeck at the kind of speed that meant he could not adjust his feet quickly enough to turn in the rebound and López gratefully clutched on to his improvised effort. Yet these were encouraging signs for United whereas in the same period Madrid, for all their territorial advantage, were restricted to only a couple of half-chances.

Welbeck was also prominently involved in the moments that led us to the point where Ramos was dragging his fingers down his face in horror at what he had just done. It started with Welbeck being unable to get a clean connection on his shot, with two defenders in close proximity as he ran on to Rafael's pass. Van Persie had been first to the loose ball but his effort was miscued and Raphaël Varane was careless in the extreme to lose the ball to Nani inside his own penalty area. Nani turned the ball across the six-yard area where Ramos jutted out his right foot and managed only to divert it past López.

What happened thereafter will always gall Ferguson. Nani's boot was definitely raised as he tried to control a dropping ball. Whether there was any intent is another matter and United's manager was so incensed with the red card he practically pushed his kit-man out of the way to get to the touchline. Soon afterwards he could be seen imploring Old Trafford to crank up the volume. They obliged, too. Yet the game had changed irreversibly and Mourinho's decision to bring on Modric was a masterstroke.

The former Tottenham player immediately set about leaving his imprint all over the match and controlling the rhythm when he equalised with a wonderful 20-yard shot in off David de Gea's post. Three minutes later he and Mesut Ozil helped Gonzalo Higuaín to rifle a shot across goal and there at the far post was Ronaldo for the killer blow.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Daniel Taylor at Old Trafford, for The Guardian on Tuesday 5th March 2013 21.48 Europe/London

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image: © crystiancruz

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