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Mar 5, 2013

United rocked by Nani red

The world would stop for this, Jose Mourinho had predicted. And it did: Manchester United's world and, in particular, a distraught, speechless Sir Alex Ferguson's world. There will no second Treble, no bracketing of the team of 2013 with the class of 1999. The 18-game unbeaten run came to an end as former friend and foe, always their most likely nemeses combined to eliminate United. Just about the only predictable element of an epic tie was that Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo could have a devastating effect.

The elder Portuguese effected the substitution that brought Real level. The younger slid in to score the winner. By Mourinho's rationale, perhaps, it was the shot that rang around the world. Yet the moment to shock the footballing universe was supplied as another Portuguese exited and United's euphoria at snatching the lead turned to anger.

Supplier of a goal four minutes earlier, Nani was sent off. Yet this was no clichéd journey from hero to villain. This was the cue for an acute sense of injustice as Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir was afforded immediate entry to Old Trafford's hall of infamy.

When, studs raised but eye on the ball overhead, Nani caught Alvaro Arbeloa in the ribs, the United winger got groggily to his feet to see a flash of a red card. "An amazing decision," said Mike Phelan, deputising for Ferguson, who was too upset to air his views. "It spoilt the game. We have a very distraught dressing room and a very distraught manager. I don't think he is in any fit state to talk to the referee about the decision."

If there were shades of 2010 when Rafael da Silva's dismissal against Bayern Munich which cost United, that was dubious and this ludicrous. Ferguson tottered from the back of his dugout in disbelief, ending up at the front of his technical area, fists clenched, urging the vocal crowd to be ever louder. They responded.

So did Real. So did Mourinho. He has long displayed a Midas touch with his substitutions; Arbeloa, on a yellow card himself, was wisely removed. Luka Modric entered. Eight minutes later, the Croatian arrowed a shot in off the inside of the post. "I have always been convinced Modric is a great player," said Mourinho, whose signing has been questioned.

Then Gonzalo Higuain cross-shot whizzed across the face of the United goal. Arriving at the far post to convert was, inevitably, Ronaldo. This made it the happiest of homecomings for him. Afforded the loudest of ovations for a player returning to his old club, he maintained his return of scoring at better than a goal per game for Real.

His was not a performance to justify Mourinho's pre-match declaration that he is the greatest ever footballer - the watching Diego Maradona still has a superior claim - and, his manager said: "Mentally it was not easy for him." Yet, even as his former colleagues tried to surround and smother him, his status as a big-game player was cemented.

And, indisputably, Mourinho is a manager of the major occasion. The ultimate actor at the Theatre of Dreams played to both crowds, heeding the United fans' call to "sit down, Mourinho" and, rather than re-enacting his touchline sprint of 2004, heading for the tunnel before the final whistle.

This was a victory greeted with humility. "The best team lost," Mourinho said. Fortune has favoured him again at Old Trafford - Paul Scholes had a goal wrongly disallowed when Porto progressed nine years ago - but luck is an essential part of the successful manager's armoury.

Mourinho, ignoring that, preferred to reflect upon the series of red cards his Chelsea, Inter and Real sides have received, often against Barcelona. "My history is to play with 10," he said.

Now he is targeting a 10th, the European Cup that has eluded Real for 11 years. Their quest for la decima has gathered pace, his bid for a unique managerial hat-trick of Champions League crowns for different clubs is a step closer. Mourinho had eight days to save Real's season and his job. He has done it, superbly, spectacularly and stunningly. Barcelona have been beaten twice, United once.

That was despite the efforts of Sergio Ramos; never one of Mourinho's disciples, the No. 4 was the fifth columnist, the man who missed the decisive spot kick in the shootout against Bayern last year scored an own goal - applying a more decisive touch to Nani's cross than Danny Welbeck could - and ought to have conceded a penalty.

It came during United's fervent, frantic efforts to rescue themselves when an understudy was unbeatable. Diego Lopez was defeated only by two central defenders, Ramos and Nemanja Vidic, who headed against the post. He saved superbly from Welbeck, Michael Carrick and Robin van Persie. Shorn of Iker Casillas, Madrid barely missed Saint Iker.

United had a sidelined icon, too, but this was a reminder of Ferguson's brutal ruthlessness. The benching of Wayne Rooney was reminiscent of the demotion of David Beckham against Real a decade ago. The Liverpudlian, like the Londoner, was summoned for a cameo. His was less devastating but, despite the tactical reasons, it seemed an invitation to head for the exit. As Jim Leighton, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Dimitar Berbatov can testify, Ferguson can use his teamsheet to deliver a message.

"Sir Alex won the right over the years," said Mourinho, the loyalist in the enemy ranks. "You are nobody, I am nobody to put a question mark. Every decision is correct and should never have a question mark in front. He is the best and he creates an incredible history."

Yet now, once again, history beckons for Mourinho.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Ryan Giggs - Extraordinary. At 39, a man born during Ferguson's playing days had the energy, the composure and the class to excel against Real Madrid on his 1,000th senior appearance. Charged with helping Rafael out against Ronaldo, he was part defender, part prompter with a series of intelligent passes. When United went down to 10 men, Giggs' running helped compensate for their numerical disadvantage.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: As ever, Ferguson surprised with his team selection, and not merely by dropping Rooney. Yet his initial approach, sitting deep and counter-attacking with pace, was working well with Giggs revisiting the role on the right wing he had in the 1999 final and Welbeck, doubled up as Xabi Alonso's man-marker and a gawky, direct athlete who troubled Real's defence. Down to 10 men, they mounted a valiant effort in vain.

REAL MADRID VERDICT: It says something that Lopez was arguably their best player on the night. Yet Modric made a difference and Raphael Varane, at 19, again showed his maturity. Nevertheless, they probably shaded the tie over two legs and, well as United did in both legs, Mourinho's are the stronger side and, perhaps, the tournament favourites now.

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