The year was different, the result was the same. Once again, Real Madrid came into Old Trafford, once again they walked out with the spoils with a 2-1 against Manchester United (3-2 on aggregate) courtesy of a stupendous goal by Luka Modric, and a merely routine but winning goal from United’s former talisman, Cristiano Ronaldo to advance to the Champions League's quarterfinals stage.
The opener, an own goal by Sergio Ramos forced by a cross from Nani, will remain consigned to history’s trash can.
It was not the spectacle of 2003, when a different Ronaldo pulled the strings. Instead, this was a game that hinged on a call made by Turkish referee Cuynet Cakir, who sent off Nani early in the second half for a rash charge, studs high, into the midsection of Alvaro Arbeloa. Partisans were outraged; neutrals knew at once it was dangerous play.
Nonetheless, every drama requires a villain. Never mind that European games are always called to a different standard than those in the Premier League. Never mind that Nani seemed to follow through, and that his foot was well above his waist.
And never mind that it will distract from some sublime play. Modric’s goal, a brilliant shot off the post, past a bewildered David De Gea was equally the result of a lack of pressure from the home team and sheer skill. United’s goal came after a blistering spell of pressure that forced two stops from a frazzled Diego Lopez. Much of the match was enthralling. Sadly, that is likely to be overshadowed by a foul from a player with a history of making bad ones.
It wasn’t immediately the guns blazing spectacle we expected. It was immediately evident that we were watching two of the best attacking teams left in European play. Van Persie and Danny Welbeck were persistent, nagging threats, forcing some superb saves out of Lopez and more than one scintillating tackle out of the young Raphael Varane.
The best chance of the first half was an old-fashioned header from United’s old-fashioned defender, Nemanja Vidic. He got on the end of Ryan Gigg’s corner in the 22nd minute, and delivered a textbook strike, low and hard – and back off the post. Welbeck thought he had been able to bundle in the rebound, but Lopez managed to scrap it clear even before the linesman got his flag up.
Lopez was in fine form for much of the night, pulling off a great double save on van Persie and Welbeck twelve minutes later, first parrying the Dutchman’s strike nearly to the feet of the English striker, and then making a fine reaction stop to parry it over his own bar.
For all the danger Cristiano Ronaldo represented in theory, precious little was actually presented by the Portuguese star until midway through the second half. While he received a warm welcome from both sets of fans, he didn’t find space until he was playing against ten men. This was not a show on par with his two games against Barcelona.
But after Nani was sent off, the floodgates opened. Kaka, replacing the injured Angel Di Maria, began to harass. Gonzalo Higuain was used to fine effect to prise United’s back line apart. And Mesut Ozil, working off Modric, proved to be too slick for United to handle.
Ozil and Higuain would combine for the winner, the German rolling a backheel into to Higuain’s path, for a low cross to meet Ronaldo at the far post. The finish was routine, the work that went into it was not.
But it is also true that after conceding the second goal, United began to play more like, well, Manchester United. Wayne Rooney, a baffling omission from the starting lineup, immediately drove the troops upfield and if not for then heroics of keeper Lopez – who made several critical stops Tuesday night – this would have been a far tenser finish.
In the end, the refs were booed off the pitch. Ronaldo received lukewarm applause. And United were left to wonder what might have been if they had kept all eleven men on the pitch.