Ref joker in the pack as cards fall badly for Reds

It’s not a sentiment normally afforded serial winners, but there’ll be a lot of sympathy for the Red Devils this morning.

And so there should be.

A match packed with game-changing players was effectively decided by a game-changing official. Referee Cuneyt Cakir decided that Nani was guilty of a red card offence when, to most objective observers, it seemed the United winger was stretching to take control of a high ball and, until almost the very instant where his boot made contact high up on Alvaro Arbeloa, appeared to have no eyes whatsoever for the Real Madrid man.

Going against the consensus afterwards, as per, Roy Keane might have concluded that the referee had made the right call – but I’ll bet he’d been as astonished as everyone else watching when, after a moment’s pause, Cakir had brandished red rather than yellow. Little wonder that Alex Ferguson reacted like an outraged elder citizen who’d just witnessed a mugging. And in a way he had.

The impact of the sending-off was profound, and not only in the most obvious sense that United were now down to ten men. It went deeper than that. Danny Welbeck, who up until then had done a superb double-shift in both marshalling Xavi Alonso and, when possible, leading his team’s attacking charge, had to be relieved of the custodial part of his duties. And, for Jose Mourinho, it meant a chance to bring an additional creative force into play in the form of Luka Modric, who made the most of his rare opportunity with a superb strike to bring Madrid back on level terms.

And it can be argued that the ripples of the referee’s decision even extended to Ronaldo emerging from the relative anonymity of his first hour on the pitch to snatch the goal which, in the end, decided the tie.

Yes, of course, Madrid deserve credit for making the most of their good fortune but, over the course of 180 minutes, it can scarcely be said that they deserved to come out on top.

Recall that, but for an uncharacteristic miss by Robin van Persie, United would have come away with two away goals from the first leg in the Madrid. Furthermore, up until officialdom’s critical intervention last night, Ferguson’s game-plan – an intelligent containment policy even if with the contentious decision to start without Wayne Rooney — seemed to be working to perfection, with Ronaldo nullified, the playmakers Alonso and Ozil largely ineffective and, in part thanks to that always vulnerable Madrid defence, his side a goal to the good after Sergio Ramos’ own-goal.

The opinions of pundits and fans tend to rise and fall with every result. Thus it was that, going into last night’s game, a season of potential ignominy for Real Madrid was deemed to have been resurrected by their back-to-back wins over Barcelona, even though the Copa del Rey is a relatively minor trinket in ‘El Classico’ terms as against the real barometer of Spanish supremacy, La Liga which, lest we forget, still shows Mourinho’s team trailing dismally behind the Catalans.

Similarly, Lionel Messi’s failure to trouble Milan in the Champions League, in tandem with Madrid’s domestic double over Barca, was interpreted by some excitable observers as evidence of a shift in the balance of power towards Cristiano Ronaldo in the head-to-head contest for the accolade of world’s greatest player.

Well, Ronaldo, his well-taken goal notwithstanding, didn’t look the best or even second-best player in the world last night. And Madrid as a team looked far from invincible, even if they did eventually burgle a result which, presumably, will have their cheerleaders at home indulging in even great hyperbole.

But, with the likes of Munich, Dortmund, Milan and, yes, Barcelona still in the Champions’ League running, I feel Madrid are going to require a lot more of the luck they had last night to go all the way.

In the aftermath at Old Trafford, Roy Keane rightly arched an eyebrow at Jose Mourinho’s apparent humility, after the Real manager suggested the best team had lost.

Ronaldo had refused to celebrate his goal in deference to his former employers. Perhaps Mourinho was showing similar deference to his future employers?

Just a thought.

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