So they got beat. Two blokes in the world think Nani’s dangle was dangerous – Roy Keane and the Turkish ref – and that was that. Madrid go through. United’s chorus of howling dissent and ‘moral’ outrage means nowt against those figures on the ole scaw-bored; 1-2. (2-3.) As Brucie might have said; ‘Alex – you’re my favourite – but I’m sorry you have to leave us.’
Pre the unsatisfying, water-treading, lop-sidedly engineered finale however, this one did pulsate nicely. In the manner of a proper big cup match, the much-criticised atmosphere at Old Trafford seething with real support as well as a respectable dollop of Real support. ‘Twas an occasion, eh? Personally, I’d been scurrying around all day in a heroically faux frenzy so as to engineer that essential headspace/sofa-berth for The Entire Thing – so difficult that one, given the cloying inconveniences of …well, life. But it just had to be done, right? In my case this meant going ballistic on the work front then simply absconding from every domestic responsibility presenting itself; or getting it done rapid. So it was in splendid familial absence that I entered that glorious bubble just in time to see team news flip up on twitter. It was then (doctor) that the pulsations first began.
Ferguson had unsurprisingly surprised us. In that (come on, be honest!) raw, deeply perverse Scottish psyche-to-trample-on-all-psyches (of his) he’d er… pulled out a plum… or a peach, or something fruiticiously quasi-triumphant and maybe whiffing of claret. A team selection all of us had to read four times before saying o-kay through a plainly discombobulated pseudo-reflective fug. A team-sheet so left-field it seemed likely that Muammur Gadhaffi – allegedly farter-in-chief at the Union of Farting Weirdos – must surely have parped it out Fergiewards from the sidelines in the sky, through a series of inspired, presumably Glaswegian cloud-symbols. A nominal midfield of Nani, Carrick, Cleverley, Wellbeck and Giggs. And Vidic ahead of Evans. And RVP up top solo… and no Rooney. Fabulous, mind-contorting stuff for the watching world but on reflection – for Fergie – simply a game plan. One without the ruggedly rugged one.
My personal nervy perusal of the line-up went pretty much as follows, in fact; WOW – Nani in; WOW, Vidic, not Evans!! The Rooneything did not, entirely, surprise me, given Ferguson’s occasional need to Firmly Establish That The Club Is Bigger Than Anyone and the player’s patchy form. Incidentally, I loved and respected the with-holding of Giggs from the Norwich game to allow a fitting and world-wide doffing of caps in this magnificent moment. Being no fan of Arbeloa, I could see the thinking (ish) re the call on Nani… but thought and think it was muddled – irrespective of the freakish red card issue. (Nani is sometimes unplayable but for me, he is too often absent – simply lacking the backbone for the big night.) Brave calls aboundeth, I thought, but before we give him the hair-dryer let’s take a second or two to rate and respect the amount of faith Sir Alex was necessarily displaying in the likes of Welbeck and Cleverley in particular. Top stuff. Pity they lost.
They lost because a tremulous winger in the tradition of lightweight, tricksy non-tackling mediterranean Pat Nevins was deemed to have crossed the threshold of what is acceptable in terms of raising your boot against an opponent. Nani, in following an aerial ball across his body in anticipation of ‘bringing down’ said ball, raised his right foot 4 foot 3 and a quarter as he pivoted. Either he was completely unaware of the approach of Arbeloa or he wasn’t. If the latter is the case then it is conceivable he knew –and indeed intended to make contact – or not. The various possibilities, let’s face it, are likely to be sieved through our own prejudices for and against the player/the club. As a player you know what you mean to do but as a spectator upon this one… difficult. I am clear that it was a yellow because it was not sufficiently dangerous or spiteful to be red, accident or no.
However, this conception of mine that there is a relevance to any ‘degree’ or sufficiency of danger may or may not be extant in the rules. As with seemingly every other high-profile transgression, we’re into this minefield of how or whether things can be judged ‘consistently.’ For me – they can’t. We aim for consistency of course but the dull MOTD chorus around this needs… needs to grow up, actually and think. We need good decisions on a million subtly different fouls or challenges or abuses of the laws. Scenarios which are as varied as the opinions upon them. It makes no sense then to simply bawl about consistency (from referees) when offences are manifestly not the same in degree of intent/violence/seriousness or otherwise. We need a referee who will discriminate well – an intelligent judge – over one applying some ludicrously crude and limiting letter-of-the-law. Let’s hope that we get lots of these kinds of refs, who can make and articulately justify such decisions, because then we will have consistently good football justice. So – even if there was a flicker of cowardly dangling or fishing with the foot by Nani – yellow!
Twenty-four hours after the event several things still fascinate. Firstly the notion that United, in playing a kindof retro-Brit longish, quickish, possession-negligent way, sitting alarmingly deep in the manner of an England side at a World Cup, invited the opposition to a) to get comfortable in the cauldron b) play. Consequently, while the home side scurried and scuffed and lashed the ball aimlessly forward in the first 30 minutes in particular, Real picked their passes. Ronaldo and co, without capitalising, did receive the ball in space around the box or out front. Maybe United got off rather lightly, early doors, as the initial pattern of the game was for Madrid to enjoy it whilst a wasteful and possibly tense United got it over with.
Surely United needed pressure? By all means play with pace but also with control? Get the crowd in there with you. Crucially, really test the Real back four – which ain’t (arguably) that special.
Time flashed past but there was little in the way of coherent passing movement from the reds. Undoubted positives included the mobility and willingness of Welbeck and the in-out dynamism and comfort of Cleverley. If the former ever turns goal-scorer (which sadly I doubt) he will be a near complete player. Giggs grew and got more vital as the game turned against him – a tribute in itself to his fitness, ability and love of the club. He hit more outstanding passes than anyone on the park. Van Persie, cruelly for United, has just hit one of those inevitable dips at utterly the wrong time; he looked quite like an ordinary striker. With things hardly fluent, that tendency to hurry or snatch a little remained.
Defensively United may have gotten away with this drop off and let them play thing if 11 men had persisted. I did think it was an error to play Vidic and Ferdinand together against such a fleet-footed and imaginative opponent but in truth these two elite stoppers were reasonably comfortable until Nani departed. But when United were reduced to ten and continued to sit deep, they were ruthlessly exposed. Ronaldo’s cute reach and Modric’s emphatic hit were in their separate ways, expressions of a high order.
One view of the game – not a popular one, or an easy one to take, perhaps – might be that Real’s composure was markedly and obviously better than United’s and that therefore their regal whitenesses represented some truly elite level of the game that United could not stretch to.(?) Overall they may be the classier – the better side. However I doubt we would be saying that had Nani stayed on and the beginnings of a Red Surge gathered towards irresistible home victory – something that seemed quite possible around the fifty minute mark.
A shame that this proper-grand and evocative sports-drama was undermined by a single issue. United lie 12 points ahead in the Premiership and will certainly be champions – so back next year. Back with the energy of Cleverley and the still-developing cool and quiet authority of Carrick. Plus the lethal brilliance of Van Persie and who knows… maybe that Rooney lad? Expect acquisitions front and back and a renewed purpose; Ferguson will want another thrash at it, methinks. They will be a force again.
This year, despite their near-unseemly dominance at domestic level, I have rarely thought the Red Devils good enough to win the Champions League. Real Madrid though, may be that good.