Arguably the two biggest football clubs on the planet were to go toe to toe in a glamour Champions League tie in Manchester United and Real Madrid. The tie was delicately poised going into the second leg at Old Trafford.
For Manchester United it was Ryan Gigg's 1000th professional appearance. It was a chance to preserve their treble hopes. It was a chance for Sir Alex Ferguson to get one over Jose Mourinho in what is a storied rivalry. The stage was set at the Theatre of Dreams for United to stamp their authority on the European game once more. Heartbreakingly, it was not to be as Real Madrid took control of the game after Nani's controversial dismissal to book their place in the quarter-finals.
Up until the red card to Nani, United were in pole position to progress after Nani himself fizzed a dangerous ball into Madrid's penalty area in which Sergio Ramos turned in for an own goal. A fantastic start to the half and no doubt a momentum booster at the time. Madrid controlled possession while United were content on playing on the break. T
Try as they might, Madrid just could not find a goal, with Ronaldo's lacklustre game not aiding their efforts. Up until the game changing red card, Madrid were quite poor, lacking imagination and penetration and thus were largely non threatening. United had one hand on a ticket to the quarter-finals, but Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo struck in quick succession to all but end United's chances in the most cruelest of ways.
Whilst los blancos fans may have held a firm belief in their side's fighting qualities to expect them to comeback regardless of Nani's dismissal given how early the goal came in the second half. Madrid would have had virtually the whole second half to claw their way back. At the bare minimum an equaliser to level the lie would most definitely not be beyond Madrid. However, taking into account how well Manchester United played for almost an hour and in forcing Madrid to play well below their best is a sure fire sign of United's undoubted quality.
Robin Van Persie could have easily won the game at the Bernabeu in the first leg to give United a huge advantage. Given how well they played at home when taking on one of club football's most accomplished sides, you can't help but feel United were unfortunate and almost robbed of a shot at European glory. The team selection itself attests to the depth and quality of this United squad.
Wayne Rooney was left on the bench in favour of Danny Welbeck who played another fantastic game to justify his spot alongside Van Persie up front. The near 40-year old stalwart Ryan Giggs was entrusted to weave his magic and one sumptuous ball with the outside of the boot which Van Persie nearly scored from, illustrated why the Welshman still has plenty to give at the top level.
Nani's starting berth was a surprise for sure especially as he has been largely frozen out this season due to protracted contract negotiations. The Portuguese star played the final ball before Ramo's own goal in what was a mature and vibrant performance, and the dismissal was a sour end to a virtuoso performance.
Ferguson's faith in the tried and tested centre back partnership of experienced pair Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic who have hardly played alongside one another this season. Both were immaculate with Vidic almost scoring from a corner.
This was hardly United's best XI but his faith in key players brought the best out of them on the night on a near perfect performance. Manchester United showed they are without a doubt one of Europe's finest teams as they were more than a match for the great Real Madrid.
Nani's red card was undoubtedly a gamechanger and United will be furious and shellshocked at what has transpired and what it has ultimately cost them. Many astute judges will believe that United more than deserved to progress over the two legs, and whilst the United players will feel despair and despondency, they can be assured that they lost no admirers for their performances over two legs. They can hold their heads up high knowing they made a statement to the whole world that they are among Europe's best.
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