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The red card shown to Nani, the Manchester United winger, after 56 minutes and with United 1-0 to the good, was a very bad call. He was following a high ball as it came from behind him and raised his boot to cushion it in front of him. As he turned, there was Alvaro Arbeloa, who got there first, taking the ball and then taking Nani's boot in his midriff. The referee must have had visions of Nigel de Jong's assault on Xabi Alonso in the 2010 World Cup final, one which merited a red but avoided punishment. There were similarities in form, but this was a PG-rated version of that 18-certificate shocker. Never a red.
Had such injustice befallen Jose Mourinho, and especially had it resulted in the favour of Barcelona, the Real Madrid manager may well have combusted. Certainly the decision would have been linked to a conspiracy from which David Icke would have shied. Instead the Special One seized the advantage and a tightly-wound game, intriguing more than entertaining, unravelled in his direction. United had gone in front in the tie with a messy own goal from the captain of Real, Sergio Ramos, when Nani's cross took a disorientating nick off Danny Welbeck's boot. It was a goal that reflected the way the game was at that point – reactive and a little fearful.
After the red card, Madrid scored twice. The first was a beauty from Luka Modric; the second a tap-in from Cristiano Ronaldo, who woke up in time to mark his return to Old Trafford with his 40th goal of the season. Nine times out of 10 that would be a decent narrative for the evening, but not last night. Rarely has a red card proved to be such a game-changer.
The stakes in the Champions League have been raised by the likely departure of Barcelona next week. If the Catalans are rudderless having lost first Pep Guardiola, the coach who brought them 14 trophies in four years, and then Tito Vilanova, the deputy promoted last summer but absent now after a relapse of a life-threatening cancer, there is clear water ahead of the teams who would hasten the end of this remarkable era.
Last night, Borussia Dortmund were winning a high-scoring tie between two of the fastest-rising teams in Europe with victory over Shakhtar Donetsk as these old-timers went at it with a more traditional caution. Alex Ferguson, the United manager, described this Madrid team as the most dangerous counter-attacking unit in Europe before this game and the team he sent over the line was designed to keep its guard up at all times: Welbeck selected before Wayne Rooney to keep the heat on the base of the Madrid midfield; a 1000th appearance for Ryan Giggs and no place for free-spirited Shinji Kagawa, despite his hat trick last weekend. They might have the Barclays Premier League wrapped up before the daffodils are in bloom, but United did not go looking for Real.
Nor did Real come out looking for trouble, or if they did, they could not find it. Before the red card, they looked nothing like the shoo-ins for the away goal that was assumed as part of this story. Ronaldo was silent in that period. United were threatened only once, when Sergio Ramos was harshly penalised for getting above Robin van Persie at a Madrid corner. The whistle had sounded before Gonzalo Higuain slid the ball into the net. Before the match was reshaped by the referee, Ferguson had the upper hand over Mourinho in a stifling and nervous duel.
If Barcelona's home-grown heroes are on the wane, then Madrid are always more likely to remain at the top of the food chain.
Ronaldo made his name at Old Trafford and then made his former employers £80m when Madrid came calling. When Angel Di Maria was injured before half-time, they brought on Kaka, who was briefly the world's most expensive footballer before Ronaldo's transfer. Modric was too expensive for England's Premier League, but not for Mourinho's bench. After Nani walked, he was called up and rattled a beautiful right-foot drive that pinged in off a post. The tie was level, but there was only one winner now. Higuain's shot across goal was missing by inches when Ronaldo stormed the back-post for a tap-in.
Now, as in that crazy summer of 2009, when the transfers of both Kaka and Ronaldo defied the unravelling financial crisis in the real world, United are unable to compete directly with Madrid on economic terms. For Madrid, the counter-offers are now likely to emerge from the other half of Manchester, or from Paris. United recruit from a lower tier; it is another mark of Ferguson's achievement. That was of little comfort to the Scot when things kicked off, of course. He tried to personally rouse Old Trafford in the wake of a decision that had him in a vintage rage. The biggest prize goes by him for another year, but neither his team nor that of a man who may succeed him looked like champions last night.