For the first time since 1996, the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals are almost certain to feature exactly zero English teams.
With a silent nod to Arsenal (3-1 down after one leg against Bayern Munich), Manchester United was the country's best bet, and 55 minutes into the second leg against Real Madrid, any gambler would have agreed.
United led by a goal, on the day and on aggregate. All of Sir Alex Ferguson's lineup surprises were paying off. Nani had kept the ball alive (when Raphael Varane should have tapped it out) to set up the Sergio Ramos own goal. Additionally, the Portuguese winger, who didn't even make the 18 for the first leg, was torching Alvaro Arbeloa, providing United's most incisive moments. Ryan Giggs, making his 1,000th career appearance, helped neutralize Cristiano Ronaldo.
Perhaps most influentially, Danny Welbeck made Xabi Alonso's life miserable. Ferguson's biggest decision was to start Welbeck ahead of Wayne Rooney, precisely because he needed someone to track Alonso.
"Alonso is the controller of their team," Ferguson told British television before the match, noting that Shinji Kagawa struggled to mark the Spanish midfielder in the first leg. "Danny Welbeck I think is the best at that on our team."
It worked. Real Madrid couldn't find any flow or composure, hastily pushing the ball forward with low-percentage punts. Just before halftime Alonso had passed 16 times, with 69 percent accuracy. Only Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuain and Diego Lopez had passed fewer times.
"We felt as though we had the tactics right for the game on such a big occasion. We felt as though we were comfortable," said Mike Phelan, speaking at the post-game press conference because Ferguson was too "distraught." "But then the game totally changed. The decision was amazing."
The Decision belonged to Turkish referee Cuynet Cakir. Nani speared Arbeloa in the torso with his studs. Despite Nani not seeing Arbeloa coming from behind him on the high ball, Cakir decided that the challenge was reckless enough to warrant a red card in easily the biggest talking point of the round thus far.
"It was ref's decision," Jose Mourinho told Sky Italia. "It could be yellow, could be red. I don't have to apologize."
Right or wrong, Mourinho saw the incident for what it was: an opportunity. A big one. A La Decima-sized one. Instantly he withdrew Arbeloa and inserted Luka Modric, whom Marca voted as the worst signing of the season. Given his performance, Marca may well print a retraction tomorrow.
With Nani gone, Welbeck shifted to the left, where Sami Khedira operated as a makeshift wing back. That freed up the center for Alonso and Modric to control possession of the midfield. Alonso exploited the space to boost his overall pass total to 60, at 77 percent accuracy, by the end of the match. The Croatian only misplayed one of his 35 passes all game. And the touch that will make the highlight reels – a venomous, swerving shot from well outside the box that clicked off the post to equalize – that touch wasn't bad either.
"Modric changed that match," Mourinho told Sky Sports.
Three minutes later, an outrageous back heel by Mesut Ozil freed Higuain, whose ferocious low cross only needed the simplest of slides from Ronaldo to seal the tie.
Fifteen minutes from shrewd tactical control to capitulation.
Ferguson injected Rooney and Ashley Young into the match. Manchester United drew seven total saves out of Diego Lopez, who fully justified his transfer fee even if he never starts another game once Iker Casillas regains fitness. But an inability to adjust quickly enough following the red card damned the Red Devils to European elimination.
"Independent of the decision, the best team lost," Mourinho told ITV. "We didn’t play well, we didn’t deserve to win, but football is like this."
Three of the last four winners between Real Madrid and Manchester United have won Europe's top prize. Mourinho won't much care which side was better if it happens again.
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