“He's annoyed, he's distraught and he knows that if he stands in front of a camera right now, he won't be doing it for many weeks to come.”
Those were just a few of the words Manchester United’s assistant manager, Mike Phelan used to describe the devastated mental state of Sir Alex Ferguson in the aftermath of his side’s 2-1 defeat and subsequent elimination from the Champions League against Real Madrid.
Who could blame him? A debatable decision had killed his dream of winning a historical second treble in his tenure at the club. In the 56th minute, Nani saw red and with him, so did the rest of Old Trafford. The controversy has been the dominant talking point of the game while several others have fallen by the wayside, not the least of which being Sir Alex’s exceptional tactics on the night.
Sir Alex aggrieved by the decision
The Scot is renowned for his longevity, man-management, motivational skills and his fierce desire to win that seems to transcend onto his players but rarely has he received similar plaudits for being a shrewd tactician. The United boss’ personality and attitude are so absorbing that his astute tactical sense is often overlooked.
Sir Alex got his tactics spot on in the away leg at the Santiago Bernabeu when his side came away with an impressive 1-1 draw and he was on top of his game once more for the return leg. The starting line-up seemed to include a few questionable selections but once the game kicked off and the manager’s plans were set in motion, the skeptics were left to marvel at the 71 year-old’s genius.
Leaving Wayne Rooney out of the team was deemed an atrocity prior to kick-off, especially since the inconsistent Nani was afforded a spot. Danny Welbeck was deployed in Rooney’s favoured role behind the striker, another strange decision since the lanky forward is not much of a playmaker. Some even felt that Shinji Kagawa’s hat-trick against Norwich City warranted a start for the Japanese against Madrid.
Leaving Rooney out was justified
However, Rooney’s exclusion proved to be a masterstroke. Robin van Persie had to start because he was the only one who could hold up the ball and bring others into play with such efficiency and the fact that he’s always capable of a moment of brilliance doesn’t hurt either. By incorporating Nani and Welbeck in the first eleven, Ferguson ensured that his team would have plenty of pace on the counter-attack.
Every time the ball fell to Michael Carrick, Van Persie, Welbeck and Nani looked to make darting runs in behind the Madrid defense in anticipation of one of the midfielder’s exquisite lofted passes over the top. While Rooney's vision could have been useful when attempting to break down a side, Welbeck's pace caused Madrid all sorts of problems on the break.
The youngster's work-rate came to the fore as he denied Xabi Alonso time on the ball when defending and broke forward swiftly as soon as United won possession. He stretched the Madrid defense and Nani's pace complimented him well on the counter while Van Persie was able to lay the ball off for him on numerous occasions.
Welbeck was a thorn in Madrid's side
The aging Ryan Giggs was also handed a start on his 1000th appearance for the club but he surprisingly took his position on the right flank rather than in central midfield. Phil Jones played a huge role in containing Cristiano Ronaldo in the first leg and his absence through injury posed a problem for United. Furthermore, the deployment of Giggs down Ronaldo's side was dicey with many questioning the veteran's ability to track back and help Rafael thwart the Portuguese skipper.
As it turned out, Giggs was one of the best players and arguably the most energetic on the night. He tracked back well, he was a threat going forward and his tackling was immense. His presence had a calming influence on the rest of the team and once again, Ferguson's judgement proved to be right on the money.
Giggs excelled on his milestone appearance
The two-time Champions League-winning manager watched his intructions being carried out perfectly by his players until that fateful sending-off. They contained Madrid well by relinquishing possession as long as the visitors kept the ball in front of them. They sat deep and denied their forwards the opportunity to run in behind while also negating Madrid's counter-attacking threat.
On the break, they threatened the Madrid goal on more occasions than one. Nemanja Vidic's header from a corner kick found the upright rather than the back of the net in the first half before Diego Lopez, who was arguably the man of the match, pulled off a double save, first palming away Van Persie's stinging effort before deflecting Welbeck's rebound over the bar.
United got their just rewards at the start of the second half when they took the lead, courtesy of a Sergio Ramos own goal. Nani was then sent off 8 minutes later and Ferguson saw all his plans and calculations crumble before his eyes. United took time to recover while Madrid took full advatage by scoring two decisive goals.
The turning point of the game?
Ferguson brought on Rooney as part of a near-impossible rescue mission and it nearly paid off. The Englishman's corner-kick was met by Michael Carrick but Lopez was on hand to produce an instinctive save yet again. Soon after, Rooney put his volley just over the bar from 6 yards out. United pushed Madrid all the way with Vidic again forcing Lopez into action with a fierce header in the dying moments.
There was no fairytale ending or miraculous recovery for United this time but Sir Alex can take quite a few positives away this game once the red mist clears. His side proved that they could compete with the very best in Europe and so nearly came out on top. Their never-say-die attitude towards the end of the game was typical of the Red Devils and should be a source of encouragement for their boss.
Sir Alex remains a step ahead
Finally, Sir Alex proved without a shadow of a doubt that he is far from being a washed-up manager living on past glory or one making preparations for his impending retirement. He proved that he is in no way, shape or form inferior to the Jose Mourinho's of this world when it comes to his ability as a tactician. He proved that he has the capacity to outsmart the best. If any good came out of this defeat for United, it would be the fact that Ferguson's burning desire to conquer Europe is now only aggravated with a thirst for vengeance.
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