By Greg Stobart at Old Trafford
For 56 minutes, it all went so swimmingly to plan for Sir Alex Ferguson. By the final whistle, the Manchester United manager was a ball of rage, his finger jabbing towards referee Cuneyt Cakir after his side were knocked out of the Champions League at the last 16 stage by Real Madrid at Old Trafford.
Ferguson was, apparently, so distraught that he delegated all of his post-match media duties to assistant Mike Phelan, who confirmed the 71-year-old was in “no fit state” to discuss the 2-1 defeat on Tuesday night following the red card shown to Nani by Turkish referee Cakir.
|AS IT HAPPENED
|SLIDESHOW: Relive Manchester United's elimination at the hands of Real Madrid|
'Never question Sir Alex' was Jose Mourinho’s advice to the press on a night when the world did not stop, as the Portuguese predicted, but almost 300 media representatives from around the globe descended on Old Trafford as these two historic clubs did battle.
And, despite the scoreline, it was also a night when the Scot proved why his Real Madrid counterpart, strongly linked as Sir Alex's potential successor, refers to him as ‘Boss’.
The Scot played his hand perfectly. United sat back and defended with organisation and resilience as, with 11 men, they restricted Real Madrid to very few chances while looking dangerous at the other end.
Never afraid to make a big call, Sir Alex took the hugely bold decision of leaving Wayne Rooney on the substitutes’ bench, which would have been unthinkable a year ago on such a big occasion.
It speaks volumes for Rooney’s diminished role in the team following Robin van Persie’s arrival last summer and raises questions over the striker’s long-term future at United - but it proved to be the right decision.
In a game between two sides so evenly matched, it was the details that would matter.
Danny Welbeck was given the task of tracking back and preventing Xabi Alonso dictating Real Madrid’s passing in the centre of the pitch. The United youngster hassled and harried the former Liverpool man, denying him time to pick his passes and build attacks for the Spanish visitors.
And when in possession, Welbeck stretched the Madrid defence with his energetic and youthful running of the channels, reminiscent of Rooney in his teenage years.
The selection of Ryan Giggs for his 1000th career appearance proved to be about more than sentimentality. The 39-year-old’s experience, positioning and passing were vital for United as they restricted Mourinho’s side and launched swift counter-attacks.
|CHAMPIONS LEAGUE LATEST
At the Santiago Bernabeu, goalkeeper David De Gea was named man of the match for making a number of crucial saves.
Here, United showed more attacking ambition and had chances to take the lead in the first half as Nemanja Vidic rattled the post with a thumping header before Welbeck was denied from close range by Blancos goalkeeper Diego Lopez.
The hosts fully deserved the opener three minutes after the re-start, an own goal by Sergio Ramos that sent the home crowd wild on a night when the atmosphere at Old Trafford rose to the occasion.
Real Madrid seemed to have few ideas about how to break down United’s stubborn defence, until they were given a man advantage thanks to the red card shown to Nani by Cakir in the 56th minute for a raised foot in a challenge with Alvaro Arbeloa.
Ferguson may reflect that he could have reacted more quickly to losing a man, but United were always facing an uphill task with 10 men and Madrid took advantage with two goals in three minutes through Luka Modric and then Ronaldo.
United are marching towards a 20th domestic title as they sit pretty at the top of the Premier League with a 12-point lead over Manchester City - but Ferguson is a winner. This will hurt - it was an opportunity lost for the club to win a fourth European crown.
The performance, though, showed that Ferguson still has the tactical nous to beat any team or manager in Europe, it vindicated the investment in young players as he steers United through a transitional period with his long-term legacy in mind.
Sir Alex will go again next year spurred on by the perceived injustice of an exit when United were the better team over two legs. He proved again on Tuesday night why he is still Boss.