Manchester United vs Real Madrid: Through the looking glass

by Dan Dawkins

Ferguson got it right. Almost. 

No Rooney. No Kagawa. No debate. Ferguson’s ‘surprise’ selection at No.10 was vindicated with Welbeck nullifying Xabi Alonso (even technocratic contrarian Gabriel Marcotti agrees), adroitly holding up play and stretching Madrid’s back line with his pace – much like he had at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Wiry, 39-year-old Giggs – occupying a position he could last call his own in the mid 2000s – marshalled Ronaldo’s brute athleticism more intelligently than Rooney’s robust frame three weeks earlier. Giggs kept his head up, recycled calmly and – as United’s best ‘quarter back’ passer, bar Carrick – kept Madrid’s back line on alert. He was critical to stretching Madrid’s defence with arching diagonal balls to Nani, Welbeck and van Persie, even if the killer delivery never materialised.

Giggs made a case to being the best player of the first half, said the Guardian’s Jamie Jackson in an elegant tribute:

“Midway through the opening half, there was a vintage Giggs on show as he took Fabio Coentrão to school.

“Real’s young left-back became the latest in a long line of patsies who have been mugged by the dazzle of a Giggs dummy, step-over and hip-swivel that were all included in a moment of sorcery down the right… a burst of one of the home congregation’s favourite ditties gleefully informed Coentrão that “Giggs will tear you apart, again”.

Arguably, the most controversial omission was the least remarked. An inversion typical of Jonnie Evans, who is still treated by sections of the media as ‘unsung’ or ‘inconsistent’ despite a season(s) to the contrary. It was cruel but logical and the attrition-honed Vidic/Ferdinand axis served us well for all but ten – sadly critical – minutes, when blame ultimately lay in wider organisation issues after the red card.

The result mocks the achievement but Ferguson out-manoeuvred Mourinho over the balance of the tie, most notably during the first 56 minutes of the home leg. United strangled a team of arguably superior talent through formational discipline, committed counter attacking at pace and force of will that was typified by the barnstorming dedication of Phil Jones at the Bernabeu or Welbeck’s pivotal role at Old Trafford.

Yet all was lost in one chastening, unexpected moment where emotion got the better of the home crowd and Ferguson, as ten-minutes of clouded thoughts ultimately cost United the tie. Well, that, or van Persie’s glaring miss at the Bernabeu or the referee’s failure to send off Varane when he was last man.

But, it’s a litany of what-ifs and Madrid can point to justifiable grievances.

Red cards. Bloody hell.

Justifiable outrage led to a costly delay 

Ferguson’s only tactical error was his response – or lack of it – to the sending off. Contrasted sharply by Mourinho’s decision to install Modric even as Benzema was preparing to come on.

“Modric gave us the kind of qualities that we didn’t have,” said Mourinho of the ex-United target who completed 55 of 56 passes on the night.

Whatever you think of the red card it was unexpected, controversial, and transformative – sending a psychic ripple that transformed the balance of play. As the crowd and players wrestled with the perceived (or let’s be frank, actual) injustice, Ferguson raged on the touchline. He lost himself in a swirl of gesticulations, amplifying the crowd and players’ emotional intensity when – with the benefit of retrospect – a calmer touch was required.

The feeling was even more intense inside Old Trafford. United fan James Rivington summed up the emotions that were running through the stands:

“No one in the ground was expecting it (the red card) at all.

“It just looked a bit clumsy and possibly a yellow. So after two minutes when the red was brandished, the crowd went mental.

“Everyone was just flabbergasted and incredulous. No one could work it out, there was a sense of shock around the whole ground.

But Ferguson did his arm waving and got each stand on their feet and screaming for blood so the atmosphere didn’t change at all – in fact it got louder.”

Modric transformed the nature of Madrid’s threat. Abetted by the liberated Alonso, they were able to dominate possession and torturously probe United’s hastily recalibrated defence. Even with 11 vs 11, the game was poised on a knife-edge where United’s meticulous formational adherence had, largely, controlled the game.

United not only had to absorb the injustice of the sending off but adapt to a new formation precisely as Madrid – in the psychological ascendancy – adjusted theirs. Camped in our box as Madrid pivoted and exchanged sharp one-twos with intent, the only surprise was that the goal came from such an exceptional long-range strike. The second seemed inevitable, as Madrid adeptly zipped the ball from alternating flanks.

It isn’t clear what message Ferguson had sent to the pitch after the sending off but it wasn’t working and he was slow to adjust the personnel. In days gone by, these were the moments when you wanted a captain like Keane to assume Ferguson’s psychological reassurance on the pitch, inspiring and calming those around him.

Vidic, Ferdinand or any of our ‘stronger’ characters failed to assume the mantle – from the evidence of ITV’s coverage, at least – but in fairness, the crowd’s simmering injustice was tangible and Madrid were rampant. Looking back, you almost wish Ferguson had sent an insanely motivated (and doubly aggrieved) Rooney straight into the fray, barking clear orders to his distressed team.

Symbolically, at least, it might have acted as a chapter break to Madrid’s active and unforeseen re-writing of the script. If nothing else, it would have allowed a minute or two to break up play, allowing the kettle whistle intensity to subside.

Cruel as it feels, Ferguson’s success was ultimately futile concluded Barney Ronay for The Guardian.

“Before United could re-organise properly Madrid had scored two decisive away goals. By the end Ferguson had effectively ‘won’ 165 minutes of this tie.

“Mourinho, brilliantly decisive with his opponent off balance, won the 15 that mattered, remaining entirely in the moment in the seconds after Nani’s dismissal while Ferguson was standing on the touchline conducting the crowd to greater heights of indignation”.

Defeat sharpens the senses and delays Ferguson’s retirement 

Ferguson was apparently ‘in no fit state to speak’ to the media claimed Mike Phelan. His fury was evident on the touchline as he barged past his own staff to point an accusing finger at the referee. His anger was no doubt genuine, not only at the preposterous decision but the agonising sense of missed opportunity.

With arch nemesis Barcelona on the cusp of elimination and Ferguson purring from his tactical neutering of Mourinho’s superior side (a manager against which he has an incongruously poor record), he must surely have sensed an unrivalled opportunity to claim the prize he most cherishes – another Champions League.

Yet in a 80˚elevation of Nani’s studs, it all came crashing down and the enormity of winning the Champions League made abundantly clear. Creating a team capable of winning the Champions League is one thing, taming fate quite another. Just ask Chelsea, who won it in the only year you’d have written them off.

The galling fact for Ferguson, behind all the fire and brimstone and righteous anger, is that there is a man – an old man. A 71-year-old who can inspire astonishing devotion, force of will untamed. A man who can still tactically outwit the game’s sharpest minds, who can control almost every aspect of his profession (bar the referee). But that’s not even what hurts.

What Ferguson can’t control, and certainly can’t hide from, is time. His age places a microscope on what surely must be his last two or three years in the game and Ferguson is wise enough to see a wasted opportunity when he sees one. Time bookends, and lends gravity, to all our actions and Ferguson will never have felt it more acutely.

Pity too, for the evergreen and ever greying Ryan Giggs, knows full well that his Dorien Grey sketch will soon fade under the Champions League’s harsh glare. This was, realistically, Giggs’ last chance to play a starring role in a key Champions League game and his performance deserved far more than what it got. His is not a career to lament but it is a tragedy to potentially watch it fade through factors beyond his control.

On the bright side, this United side needs little motivation to tear into Chelsea on the weekend – a game that suddenly seems hugely un-daunting given its opportunity to exorcise some demons.  The league will not be surrendered to a lapse in appetite or attention and this much maligned, far from ‘vintage’ United side, do in fact belong on the top table even when their ambitions are cruelly corked, like a bitter red.

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