A controversial red card for Nani proved the turning point of the Champions League last-16 tie between European giants Manchester United and Real Madrid as the Spanish champions went onto claim a 2-1 victory at Old Trafford and a 3-2 win on aggregate.
The home side had produced a textbook performance, nullifying the threat of Madrid while causing problems going forward. And when Sergio Ramos turned the ball into his own net early in the second half, they looked a good bet to make the quarterfinals.
But an astounding dismissal of Nani for a challenge on Alvaro Arbeloa changed the complexion of the game entirely and Madrid quickly scored two crucial goals through Luka Modric and the returning Cristiano Ronaldo.
It had been Ferguson’s team selection that had been a huge talking point before kick-off as Wayne Rooney was left on the bench, but few could question that the veteran United boss got his tactics spot on. While Madrid deserve plenty of credit for seizing the opportunity following their numerical advantage, it will be Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir who will make headlines long after the final whistle.
In the days leading up to the game, the focus of attention, of course, had been on Ronaldo. The man who left for Madrid in 2009 got a standing ovation right before kick-off but minutes later the Old Trafford crowd was delighted to see a thundering long-range free-kick from their former hero crash into the United wall.
Madrid created the first opening, too, when Gonzalo Higuain received the ball on the edge of the box after some neat interplay but fired wide of the target.
It was Ferguson’s tactics that were the star of the opening 45 minutes, though. The United manager caused many a ripple with his selection of Nani, Ryan Giggs and Danny Welbeck in a line behind Robin van Persie, but it worked to a tee.
In particular, the decision to put Welbeck centrally just standing on Xabi Alonso whenever Madrid had the ball nullified the heartbeat of Jose Mourinho's side and prevented quick distribution to the likes of Ronaldo, Angel di Maria and Mesut Ozil.
As they frustrated their opponents, United gradually grew in confidence as the first half progressed.
As good as he was for United without the ball, Welbeck was also the chief threat with it. His burst through the middle led to Giggs clipping a fine ball to the back post with the outside of his left foot but Van Persie failed to make clean contact with a volley.
The Dutchman made a better connection with an effort later in the half, after turning Raphael Varane on the edge of the box, but saw his near-post effort batted away by Diego Lopez. From the rebound the former Sevilla stopper came out to deny Welbeck.
United’s best chance, though, came from a set piece. Vidic showed why he is such an imposing aerial presence in both penalty areas as he rose eight yards form goal to meet Giggs’s corner from the right but could only head against the post when he should have been putting United in front on the night and in the tie.
Still, United certainly went into the interval the happier of the two teams. That quiet contentment turned to jubilation within three minutes of the restart.
After Van Persie’s shot was well blocked in front of goal the ball ran across to the back post and Varane, who has been so impressive of late, perhaps showed a rare sign of inexperience as he gifted the ball to Nani. The winger slid the ball back across goal, where Welbeck got a touch to catch out Ramos, who deflected it into the net.
Elation soon turned to anger just minutes later as the referee made himself public enemy number one inside Old Trafford.
Nani went to secure possession with only eyes on the ball, but made contact with Alvaro Arbeloa’s midriff to send the Spanish defender to the turf. The challenge was high, but the decision to produce a red card was absurd.
Ferguson, United’s players and the crowd were incensed, but Nani was forced to trudge off leaving with United with the unenviable task of trying to keep Madrid at bay for 35 minutes.
Madrid were reinvigorated and the pressure came thick and fast. Within minutes, Rafael prevented Varane from heading in from just three yards out with what initially appeared to be his head but what replays showed was a hand.
But, a man down, United could not hold on for much longer. In the space of three minutes in the middle of the second period, Madrid took control of the tie with two quick-fire goals.
Mourinho made an inspired subsititution to bring on Modric and the Croatian's passing and awareness helped Madrid to take advantage of their extra man. So maligned since his big money move form Tottenham, Modric provided the breakthrough too as he shifted the ball past Carrick 25 yards from goal before unleashing a stunning drive that curled onto the inside of the post and into the net.
As United were still coming to terms with that blow, Madrid scored again to leave the home side needing an improbable two goals to progress. Ozil was the architect this time with a delightful flick to release Higuain down the right and the Argentinian striker drove the ball right along the face of goal allowing Ronaldo to slide in at the back post and send the ball into the net.
With Rooney coming off the bench, United tried manfully to try and find a way back into the contest and created several chances too. Diego Lopez was found to be in outstanding form as he first denied Carrick with a header and then a close-range shot by Van Persie from which Rooney put the rebound over the bar.
There was no coming back for United, though, and the result could have been more emphatic, but Kaka’s low shot smashed off the post and into the arms of De Gea.