When cool heads were needed in the heat of battle at Old Trafford the dugout was empty and leader less. In that void Jose Mourinho went about his business, making tow vital changes. One of which had almost an immediate impact when Luka Modric reshaped a somewhat inert midfield and then struck a delightful ball inside David DeGea's left hand post. The rest, as they say, is history and the world moved on.
Except for Sir Alex Ferguson.
The most decorated man in Premier League history spoke for the first time since Tuesday at a Friday press conference ahead of the vital FA Cup clash against Chelsea. In summary Ferguson feels he has been denied the chance of Euro glory on a total of three occasions by referees. This week was just another after that controversial Champions League exit at the hands of Real Madrid in the last 16.
Remarkably Ferguson admits his side lost their focus as Real pounced with two goals in three second-half minutes
“It cost us the game. When you get a player sent off and he deserves to be sent off the reaction from your players is ‘Oh you stupid bugger!” but you don’t lose your composure.
“We lost our composure for that 10-minute period. We were all over the place. That period was the killer.
“There was a sense of ‘here we go again’. Then we lost the second goal.
His side have also suffered previous injustices in the same competition.
Ten years ago against Mourinho and Porto, Paul Scholes had a perfectly good goal ruled out for offside in the second leg which would have finished the tie. But Porto pounced in the last seconds to knock United out.
In 2009, at the quarter-final stage a red card for Rafael allowed Bayern Munich back into the second leg, and Arjen Robben the scored and Ferguson went out on away goals.
“It’s hard to keep your faith when you see these things happen.
“That’s three European Cups we’ve been knocked out of due to refereeing decisions.
“But somewhere along the line you have to find the energy to get back up and carry on.”
The truth is that it was the manager who lost his cool and was unable to keep his head while everyone else was losing theirs, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling. Not only did he neglect his post, he rudely bungled past one of his backroom staff, then berated the fourth official, menacingly finger pointing at the referee and the waved his hands at the crowd to raise the Red roar. A few steps away Real Madrid number two Karanka was sensibly advising the officials that Modric would replace Arbeloa. Soon after Pepe was on for Ozil. One wonders whether Ferguson, or indeed assistant Mike Phelan, even noticed, so out of control were their emotions.
Three minutes later the game was just about done and dusted.
For the rest of the footballing world it was a night when funny things can happen, and where events, my dear friend, can be the making of a football game. Or indeed not. Let’s remember United at Camp Nou in 1999, Liverpool’s Istanbul final in 2005; Or Moscow in 2008 when John Terry lost his footing when taking his penalty in the Champions League final -and hit the post. Albeit it was Nicolas Anelka’s miss that sent the trophy Manchester United’s way. Or just ask Bastian Schweinsteiger the same questions after his very uncharacteristic penalty miss at the Allianz Arena last May, which rewarded Terry’s team – against all the pre-match odds.
Sometimes this stuff is just written.
The trick is not to lose focus and so accustomed is Ferguson perhaps to dominating the Premier League, real life in Europe highlights some tactical shortcominbgs. It’s an unforgiving place where the teams like Bayern Munich, Juventus, and Real Madrid have long legacies at this elite tournament. They too have been managed by numerous managers during the same time that Ferguson has been the sole boss at Old Trafford. That is a healthier set of affairs for footballers, backroom staff, who learn with every change, forced to adapt and can thrive on the unpredictability. Many international managers probably relish playing The Reds as the tactics and players vary little, so when United face top talent they can fall way short. Just revisit that final in 2011 at Wembley when Pep Guardiola guided his side easily past Ferguson’s men as if it were a training game.
The hiccup at Basle was the result of arrogance in the group stage with United winning only 2 of their 6 games. Then having to chase the game in Switzerland to keep their hopes alive against Champions League neophytes. Which they failed to do after a master class in keeping the ball from Basel. A year later little has changed and in the end two average teams met in the last 16 with one progressing courtesy of a referees’ decision. But also as a result of number of misses from Robin Van Persie, which twice in Madrid could have put the tie beyond - not only keeper Diego Lopez’s reach – but Mourinho’s. Rather than drop Rooney why not Van Persie.
The Dutchman has not scored in his last five outings for United.
Against Real Madrid on Tuesday night, RVP was a shadowy figure compared to the early part of this season, with a couple of miskicks reminiscent of the first leg. The statistics suggest it his worst run of form since the start of the 2010-11 season, when injury still plagued him as he scored just one goal in his last eight appearances. At least Rooney scored last week at Norwich, as did Kagawa – three times.
But seemingly these issues cannot be raised about Fergie.
Regardless of the referee Manchester United came to defend the one all score line from Madrid and hoped that the impressive Danny Wellbeck would deliver a goal. Even against the run of play. This was preferred than a more offensive setup that would inhibit Real Madrid, who under Mourinho, also play the counter attack so effective. In fact Sir Alex’s visit to see the Cope del Rey semi-final at Camp Nou might have influenced his thinking a bit too much and caused him to opt to stifling Xabi Alonso as his Plan A. And for a lot of the game it worked. Yet as the game went on it was clear Mourinho would throw the kitchen sink at United in search of that vital goal. But that all became academic once the Turkish referee made his call.
That decision notwithstanding, a robust and over eager Wayne Rooney would have been the better option and the call in RVP from the bench if all else failed.
One sad note is the venom that many Manchester United figures voiced for one of the greatest sons, Roy Keane. A man who captained his team in Turin in 1999 to win in a match that The Reds had little hope – after going down 2-0 in the second leg – and 3-2 on aggregate. That night Keane headed a goal in the second half that set off a most unlikely come back that secured his team’s place in that infamous Barcelona final. Earning himself in the process a yellow card, which absented him the Champions League showpiece. Even allowing for some mischief, and Keane has had his fair share of questionable tackles in his career, the bile that came his way for comments on the Nani red card on the ITV panel are shocking.
But the Ferguson, Ferdinand and a number of others showed that they should really read more Kipling.
"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same;"
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