Walking down Wharfside Way* tonight towards Old Trafford, the lights on the East Stand seemed to shine a little brighter than usual. I’m sure it was just an optical illusion but there was a real air of excitement and nervous anticipation tonight for the game and the senses were heightened. Besuited and grizzled old school reds, one or two smoking a stogie were hanging around on the forecourt and the tickets on the black market were coming to figures that could pay for some peoples season tickets. It’s been a while since a match involving United had such a magnitude of excitement in the build up. Even with the corny mosaic and plastic flags left in United Road and the officially sanctioned Manchester United banner without the legend ”football club” being in the crest, the atmosphere in the ground was the best I’ve witnessed since the semi final against Barcelona in 2008. Old Trafford is made for nights and matches like the one we had tonight.
Real Madrid won tonight with a certain dignity and I have no bad feeling towards them. I won’t exactly be rooting for them to win the tournament, but compared to Bayern Munich in 2010 when I happily cheered the leathering they got off Internazionale in the Bernabau, I wish Real well. As for the Turkish referee, Cüneyt Çakir, whoever delegated him to officiate this game wants sacking. United didn’t lose tonight due to a referee who had a preference for Real Madrid but due to a referee who was officiating in front of the biggest audience he was ever going to be in front of. Ronaldo, Kaka, Giggs, Van Persie et al, worldwide renowned and respected footballing superstars were out on the pitch but tonight Cüneyt Çakir was going to the star of the show in front of the inestimable millions watching around the world on television. Bill Shankly once said that the best referees were the ones you didn’t notice, you had no chance of that with this prick in the middle. You can play a team as good as Madrid and get a result but even with a goal start, it’s very hard if not impossible to play them with a man down with over half an hour to go. When Nani went for that fateful ball with Álvaro Arbeloa on 57 minutes, he injured himself as much as anybody else. He may not be my favourite United player (to put it mildly) but he is not a malicious player. Whilst Nani was on the floor being treated by United physio Rob Swire, I could tell by the referees body language that a card was eventually going to be shown. That he waited ’til Nani was back up on his feet and walking to the touchline to brandish the red card was in his sense of theatre. There was a disbelieving gasp around me and I originally thought that Nani must’ve said something out of order.
When United went in front through a Sergio Ramos own goal, not a lot changed. Real Madrid came into the match needing to score at least once but this goal gave United a buffer after a cagey and mutually respectful first half. Ronaldo and Kaka looked as dangerous as you’d expect but they were well marshalled by Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. Whilst not impregnable, United’s defence looked solid and disciplined in the first half. After the Nani sending off, the United half of the pitch began to resemble the Alamo. There was a resigned inevitability amongst reds about Luka Modric’s equaliser nine minutes after the referee’s intervention. I believed it would be a miracle after the sending off for United to keep the score to 1-0 but now I was praying in the forlorn hope of United somehow holding out for penalties with 10 men and 25 minutes of normal time to go (not to mention extra time). Cristiano Ronaldo took care of that hope a couple of minutes later by turning up ghostlike on the far post to turn in a low Gonzalo Higuaín cross. While Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo missed good chances after Ronaldo’s winner, Madrid stand in keeper Diego Lopez made some great saves from Nemanja Vidic, Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney. United lost and a loss it was, no messin’ about with moral victories, leave that to the smaller clubs but United go out tonight with heads held high, we’ll never die!
*formerly Trafford Park Road