Although Pep Guardiola's side were the best in Europe that night, by any measure, it belied a reality that afflicts the record of Ferguson’s Champions League record, where Moscow came down to penalties, and the 1999 win coming in a bizarre final 90 seconds at the Camp Nou against the run of play. As even George Best had left the stadium in despair that night, missing those final two goals from Solkjaer and Sheringham. In fact to this day one wonders as to what went through Ottmar Hitzfeld's mind that night in Barcelona and why he decided to take off Lothar Mathaus in the 90th minute. But on such fine things are Champions League games balanced.
It was no different at Old Trafford on Tuesday when Ferguson chose to rely on Ryan Giggs, who at 39 years was playing his 1,000th time for the club, yet ill equipped to be that pivotal player in such a key European match in 2013. A fact that more clearly highlights the true value of that 12 point lead in the Premier League, as playing a top European teams is very different to a visit to Norwich or Sunderland. A point that the highly decorated Manchester United manager fails to appreciate at times despite those successes in 1999 and 2008.
For all the potential controversy of the refereeing decision to send off Nani, which was without doubt a turning point, it somehow fails to explain how the lead was only obtained though the misfortune of Sergio Garcia – who pushed the ball into his own net. Albeit that the home side were applying all the pressure, Real Madrid were able to absorb it up to that stage.
Having said that, Nemanya Vidic should have taken the lead, except for the rigid upright which deflected the ball into the groin of Madrid keeper Lopez, and kept the score level. But Madrid could also claim the goal by Higuain was valid and not illegal as deemed by the referee. But on such delicate moments do Champions League matches hinge.
It seems that for Ferguson there is a failure to understand - that for many managers who live away from the over hyped Premier League – winning the Champions is where the standards are set. In that competition all teams come with no baggage, history or reputation. In that sense Mourinho’s Real Madrid are as humble as the next, as the club have not won the trophy since Vicente Del Bosque took them to Hampden Park in 2002. And for a club that waited many decades before winning it in 2000 and 2002 there is a real appreciation for the competition. Particularly after the accumulated history from the 1960's. At times United seem to forget that history.
And so it was at OId Trafford when the pretender, Mourinho, showed the master the way forward, even despite the referee’s decision to banish Nani for an over the top tackle on Madrid defender Arbeloa. Which, rightly or wrongly, then changed the complexion of the tie and indeed the momentum. But then again on such moments are Champions League ties balanced.
The only surprising with the Premier League Champions elect was their failure to find a formula that could hold a Madrid side - way off the lead in La Liga – and with the Copa del Rey the only other remaining challenge. The United defeat on Tuesday goes a long way to confirming Pep Guardiola's choice to manage Bayern Munich next season as the right one. Clearly the British teams struggle with the game in Europe, with Celtic facing an unlikely comeback against Juventus in Turin on Wednesday, and Arsenal fearing the worst in their return trip to the Allianz Arena against Bayern.
On the night though it was the Ferguson’s decisions that highlighted a myopia that fails to see European football as different. The major one being to start Giggs from the kick off in a role, and in a match, that would require a physicality that even the fittest 39 year old would struggle to fulfil. The other decision to absent Rooney from the beginning was also unusual, given he is a player that most in Europe would regard as a threat. Even if he were playing with one leg tied to the other.
For Real Madrid it was a tough night most of the time and it proved tricky game for Xabi Alonso who was unable to release the ball when marked so closely by an impressive Danny Wellbeck. In addition, the runs of Gonzalo Higuain, tested the defensive line of Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra - albeit without any result. The trouble for United compounded perhaps by not allowing Antonio Valencia rampage up the flanks and dilute the attacking flair of Fabio Coentrao. But such is the game that sometimes the tactics can be too clever.
Which in essence is where Ferguson led to his own downfall. Last season it was basel that put the Reds out at the group stages.
For Madrid it was a roller coaster night which saw the game come and go, and it was only the arrival of Luka Modric that changed their game plan – and he would have done so facing 10 or 11 men. On the night his movement was sharp and it allowed him find an opportunity inside the right post of David DeGea's goal. A strike of the type that made him so popular with Spurs fans a number of seasons ago. The fact that he has not been a regular in the starting eleven for Madrid makes it more dramatic. On this occasion his goal took the pressure of Cristiano Ronaldo, and rendered that vital goal in the 66th minute. On such moments are Champions League ties balanced.
The Stretford End was then silenced when Ronaldo put the tie beyond reach three minutes later.
The damage from the Nani sending off was evidenced by Sir Alex Ferguson’s failure to appear before the post-match cameras, a contrast to the elegance of Mourinho, who was modest in his assessment of the result. Too often in Clasicos he has been on the receiving end of unfavourable or bizarre refereeing decisions. He knows far too well what that feeling is like.
“Of course we are happy to have qualified, but I expected more from my team. We didn't play well. We took advantage of the ten to 15 minutes after their sending-off. The first half ended scoreless and it was a very tactical game until that point with both sides giving their all. When Luka Modric came on I felt he changed the dynamic of the game in midfield.” explained Jose Mourinho.
“Having said that, we suffered until the end; United were physically very strong. We suffered too much while they had ten men and the fact that our goalkeeper Diego López was our best player in that time says it all. When your keeper is your best player with a numerical advantage it shows you are not controlling the game as you should. Our midfield was filled with players during the later stages, yet we didn't control the match.”
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