Great spectacles are defined by compilations of individual isolated moments.
That was the case as Manchester United welcomed Real Madrid for the second leg of a Round of 16 Champions League tie. Ultimately, a night of stars will be remembered for the various moments of bright lights and sporadic darkness.
As is the norm, the game had started long before the game had started. Not lost on anyone was the fact that the first leg had ended 1-1 at the Bernabeu, Danny Welbeck’s opener handing the Red Devils a valuable away goal. Also, the manner in which Madrid had dispatched of Barcelona in back to back clasicos showed that the Madrilenos most potent threat was on the break. As such, these two factors meant that any tactical preview pointed at them playing like the away side – defend solidly and look to counter.
From that, Sir Alex Ferguson sprung a surprise. Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa, on the scoresheet in the club’s previous game, were both left on the bench. In their place, Ryan Giggs was handed his 1000th professional game, while Luis Nani was handed a rare start.
Before the game, Sir Alex said that he thought Welbeck would do a better job on Xabi Alonso than Rooney, hence the omission. Here, he was right, as Welbeck pushed up against Alonso and had the pace to run past him when United had the ball. As this stifled Alonso, Giggs, rather surprisingly, stifled the returning Cristiano Ronaldo. On the opposite flank, Nani’s imagination was testing Alvaro Arbeloa – obviously Madrid’s weakest player.
All this pointed towards Ferguson’s rarely mentioned excellent tactical nous. His tactics were spot on and though they did not effectively set his side apart as the better, they most certainly reduced the strengths of his opponents.
For 56 minutes at least.
Then, the referee tipped the balance. The merits or demerits of the red card shown to Nani will be debated for days on end. Refereeing decisions have already been discussed on this forum before and as such, benefit of doubt should be in their favour. Devoid of the angle from which the referee saw it, it is difficult to assess his interpretation.
His decision however meant that Madrid had numerical advantage. This, in a match of such close disparities, widened them.
And that is where Jose Mourinho proved his worth. If Sir Alex had proved his tactical nous with his starting set up, Mourinho proved his with his reaction to changing circumstances. He turned a perceived advantage into reality. Immediately, he brought on Luka Modric. The Croat, who has been ineffective at the Spanish capital so far, came on to prove Mourinho right in the competition which most necessitated his signing.
It was last season’s loss to Bayern Munich in the semi finals, particularly the use of Toni Kroos as a number ten, that had led Mourinho to get Modric from Tottenham. If Mou ever needed his plan B to work, this was it.
And it did. Within 13 minutes, the initiative had been taken. First, Modric found space to strike past David De Gea. Then, he started the move that led to the returning hero delivering the decisive blow.
Were it not for Diego Lopez however in the Madrid goal, then Ronaldo would probably not have been match winner. An impressive display from what, after stepping on the gas, Mourinho turned into a tightening of the screw with the introduction of Pepe, would have been turned sour. The lead was secured by the safe keeping of a goalkeeper who has a Euro 2008 Championship medal in his locker.
What should trouble United fans was the loss of shape accompanied by the dismissal. Although precipitated by Mourinho’s quick thinking, it should not be lost on them how also in the 2010 quarter final against Bayern Munich, a tie that was well in control was lost after Rafael got sent off. Also, last season’s loss to Manchester City at Old Trafford would, in a game that was already lost anyway, not reached the heights of 6-1 were it not for Johnny Evans seeing red.
Clearly, United do not react well to a man disadvantage. Admittedly, not many teams do, but looking at Mourinho’s reaction against the same burden while with Inter Milan at the Nou Camp in 2010, as well as Roberto Mancini’s when Vincent Kompany got sent off in an FA Cp 3rd Round tie against United last season shows that some manager’s have the astuteness to adapt better.
Hence, here was where the game was effectively won and lost. Whereas Sir Alex could not adapt, Mourinho fully did.
Before then however, causality had taken its course. For every cause there was an effect. The overall effect was that Real Madrid proceeds to the quarter finals, and Manchester United eliminated.