Nani is shocked as he is sent off in Real Madrid’s 2-1 victory over Manchester United.
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The eyes of the footballing world were on Old Trafford last night as United hosted Real Madrid in the second leg of the last 16 in the Champions League. With the tie finely poised after the first leg, Fergie had fans guessing his starting line up for days in advance, particularly given Jones’ injury. What followed couldn’t have been more dramatic and cruel but also seems to have brought out the best in fans and players. As ever, we welcome comments from both sets of fans.
Rooney dropped – Fergie’s tactical genius
There was always going to be some kind of Fergie selection surprise but that Rooney would only be on the bench came as a shock to many. Yet, it proved to be a fantastic decision – that in itself shouldn’t really be strange but for every few ‘getting it rights’, there’s a City away last year.
Of course, any time Fergie drops a player such as Rooney, the media decide to write a story about a potential exit. In this instance, that does a huge disservice to the boss who made a big decision and got it right. He even said pre-match to ITV that he’d left Rooney out because he felt the player was unfit. Admirably frank from the manager – particularly after a weekend where despite scoring and assisting two, Rooney had been pretty awful (even if the media had clambered to make him their man of the match).
There was more to it than Rooney’s fitness though. Here is a player who has had his role in a team messed around with on so many occasions that it’s now very difficult to pigeon-hole what his best role really is. That of course is a concern given that he’s probably our highest earner but that’s a different point altogether. Arguably, Rooney’s at his most influential when given freedom to control a game and express himself. In Madrid, Fergie had combined him with Kagawa and Welbeck and although at times United broke well, there was a lack of attacking cohesion and balance. This time around he opted for exactly that – with width and pace, but also tactical discipline and energy.
Fergie got it absolutely spot on, as the performance went on to prove. Although he does still sometimes make inexplicable decisions, on the whole, with age, Fergie’s brilliance, particularly in Europe, is a joy to behold. Having gone to watch Madrid in Spain last week, Mourinho was unquestionably outmanoeuvred.
What it does mean for Rooney remains to be seen. It didn’t have the feel of a Beckham-dropping in this tie 10 years ago but it does raise questions about whether United are a better unit without him and just why he is so unfit at the moment. Still, expect him to start at the weekend, particularly with van Persie also looking like he could do with a rest right now – and don’t be amazed if he stays at United for some time to come, despite what the inevitable press stories will say.
Welbeck announces himself
Over the two legs, two young players stood out and were unquestionably the stars. For Madrid, it was their young centre back, Varane. He had been wanted by United two years ago but opted for Madrid instead and hence United then moved for Jones – it’s easy to see why he was fought over. Pace, strength and composure beyond his years, this is a fabulous young centre back. He did make two key errors though – in the first leg he should have been sent off for a last man haul and last night he tried to beat a man when he should have cleared the ball, eventually leading to United’s goal.
Like Varane, Welbeck wasn’t flawless. His errors were in the finishing department but he was still probably the tie’s best player. His first leg was about pace on the break, stretching Madrid and intelligence in attack. This second leg showed an incredible maturity to do off the ball work. He was Alonso’s shadow for the majority of the first 55 minutes – stopping Alonso, stops Madrid. The tactical discipline he showed was incredible and only when United were reduced to 10 men did the Spanish playmaker finally find space and time.
There was another side to Welbeck too. Again his pace scared Madrid’s back line but he showed off his technical skills too. Clever movement and interchanges showed how easy he finds it to open up space when none appears to be available. He is quickly becoming Fergie’s ‘go-to’ man for big games and despite a very low goal tally this season he has firmly announced himself on the European stage. His critics are forming an ever smaller group now and they tend to have a point about his finishing but it’ll come – for now, he’s a local lad to be proud of.
United still struggling to beat Diego Lopez
Annoyingly, United had a habit of drawing 0-0 with Villarreal in the Champions League group stages. Most recently, this was in 2008-09 when no goals were scored or conceded over 180 minutes home and away. Diego Lopez was the then goalkeeper for Villarreal and when he signed for Madrid as cover for Casillas following his injury, one could have been forgiven for wondering if United would beat him this time around.
That said, he looked shaky in the first leg and oddly did again last night. A couple of his saves could have/should have seen rebounds go into the net. Still, fans were quick to praise him for making nearly a dozen saves on the night to keep United out. Truth be told, many of them were simply routine stops with his best save of the tie coming in the first leg from a van Persie shot. He may have been a source of frustrating but United’s finishing could have been better – not just Welbeck; headers were directed straight at him (with the exception of Vidic’s post-hitter) and one suspects that Madrid’s goalkeeper coach would have been pretty peeved off if Lopez hadn’t have made any of his saves.
The game changer – red card and quick response
If the world was to stop and take note of this match, as Jose Mourinho had originally suggested, I’m sure it let out an almighty gasp on hurricane measures when Nani was shown a red card for his foul on Arbeloa. Never in a million years was it a red card, despite what some glasses wearing football fans might try and justify. Nani was aiming to bring the ball down by jumping and controlling it with his right boot, a technique used all around the world – perfected by the best, like Zidane and Berbatov. Unknown to Nani, the Spanish right back was attempting to win the ball at the same moment.
Arbeloa got there ahead of the Portuguese winger and both collided, even though Nani’s eyes were firmly focused on the flight path of the ball. As the players received treatment, no one thought that there could be potential red card from the coming together of the two players. It is one of the worst decisions I’ve ever seen in football that has cost Manchester United a chance to reach the next round. Gary Neville raised a good point regarding Lopez punching Vidic in the face from a corner. Punching someone in the face is quite dangerous, but should he have been sent off!? Of course not.
Following the red card, Mourinho won the game. He was quick to react to United’s imbalance and brought on Modric for Arbeloa, adding another midfielder to the side. With Khedira filling in at right back, Madrid’s additional ball-player made the difference. United’s players had been so certain of their defensive roles and who to pick up that now players weren’t sure whether to go to Alonso or Modric. Having the extra man and space made Modric’s job easy and he in turn was the architect for Madrid’s revival and predictable recovery.
Some might point to Fergie not reacting quickly enough to the red card and we’ll never know if he was right or wrong to not change things but you can make a case for both sides. He and Giggs immediately acted as cheerleaders, trying to encourage the crowd to get behind the team even more. One suspects he probably wanted to keep it tight for five or ten minutes, keeping both Welbeck and van Persie on the pitch, before deciding his next move.
Alternatively he could have sacrificed a number of players – Cleverley (who started to tire after a superb hour); Welbeck (opting for a more clinical player); van Persie (never quite looked fit for some reason). That there were no central midfielders on the bench didn’t help his options and maybe he could have brought a natural winger on for either forward but it’s all ifs and buts. Fergie not making a change immediately after Nani was sent off certainly didn’t lose us the game – the numerical advantage was with Mourinho and he pressed that home.
The tie of the round between two great footballing institutions was sadly ruined by Cuneyt Cakir, the referee. For 145 minutes Manchester United were tactically spot on and had Real Madrid where they want them, on top with a goal lead. The dismissal changed everything as United could no longer press as they had been, Welbeck was forced left and the introduction of Luka Modric was pivotal. Welbeck had been magnificent all night, patrolling the advanced libero role where Xabi Alonso operates with great maturity and discipline, way beyond his young years. He was then able to spin away and make runs stretching play and supporting Robin van Perise. Ryan Giggs was operating on the right hand side to help out Rafael who had the daunting task of keeping Cristiano Ronaldo relatively quiet – something that was achieved up until the sending off.
Playing with ten men against one of the best sides in the world is a ridiculously difficult task. You plan all week, keep your shape and know your role, which was all going to plan, right up to the red card. You can get a result, as Chelsea proved last season, but you need a lot of luck – something United didn’t have with Diego Lopez is fine form towards the end of the game. It is the main talking point of the match, there is no hiding from it because it changed the dynamics of the game, giving Real Madrid the initiative, which they took in some style.
Luka Modric has had a tough time in Spain since his summer move from Tottenham Hotspur, but his class – which we have recognised on here many times before – was on show for all to see. His right footed strike struck De Gea’s left post and it was in the back of the net. The balance had well and truly shifted in Madrid’s favour. The introduction of Wayne Rooney following Cristiano Ronaldo, who refused to celebrate, winner didn’t help proceedings and Manchester United were left to rue a glorious opportunity of walking out at Wembley on May 25th.
Manchester United must now look to a potential league and cup double, with Chelsea the opposition on Sunday in the FA Cup. There are many positives to take from the game, even in defeat. In his fortieth year and on his 1000th professional appearance, Ryan Giggs was magnificent all evening and provided both an attacking threat, with his nonchalant outside of the boot left footed cross the pick of his sublime ability, and of course defensively, doubling up on Ronaldo and limiting the space infield. The youth of Rafael, Cleverley and, my man of the match, Danny Welbeck was all on show as United took the game to the Spanish Champions.
This is a Madrid team capable of beating Barcelona, league leaders in their domestic league, twice in a week. The team, despite what Roy Keane might think, consists of leaders and warriors in the form of Ramos and Khedira, genius players in Alonso, Ozil and of course, they have Cristiano Ronaldo. Although Sir Alex Ferguson is silent now, I’m sure we’ll hear from the manager in the next few days on what he really feels about United’s premature exit from the tournament. This was the culmination of 18 months of squad transition and with all the planning seemingly so perfect and then executed so well, it’s easy to see why he, like us, is so gutted.