Mourinho: 'The best team lost'

Posted by Mark Payne

The biggest game in world sport Tuesday was ruined by a dreadful refereeing decision as Real Madrid triumphed 2-1 in Manchester to advance to the final eight in the Champions League.

United's players were heroic in defeat but could not recover from the wrongful sending off of Nani by Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir early in the second half. Even Jose Mourinho seemed embarrassed by the manner in which the match turned. "The best team lost," he said. He will never get a luckier break.

-- Match report: Manchester United 1-2 Real Madrid
-- Delaney: More on the red card

Jaws dropped before kickoff when the Manchester United team sheet emerged with Wayne Rooney's name not on it. "Wayne needs a game or two to be honest," Alex Ferguson said. The words could have been designed to rile the striker. Back in the TV studio, Roy Keane described it as "a hammer blow. The writing could be on the wall for Rooney."

The decision actually made sense from a tactical view. Rooney was more bystander than ball winner in Spain and United's tactics for this match required only one striker. Robin van Persie is better at holding the ball up and is also better at playing as a lone front man. It was, though, a massive call.

Rooney could be seen warming up on his own after 10 minutes and by then United’s game plan had become clear. Despite being at home, United set out to defend deep and hit Madrid with pace on the counter. Having avoided the horror of conceding an early goal, it was a strategy that looked better and better as the first half wore on.

Madrid were unable to account for Danny Welbeck and Nani, who were supreme. Every time United regained possession they sprinted into space and United were far and away the most dangerous team in the first half. They grew in confidence as the game wore on and Nemanja Vidic crashed a header against the post. Madrid were there for the taking.

At the start of the second half, United’s patience paid off. A move involving Michael Carrick and van Persie had the ball bobbling off Diego Lopez in the Madrid goal and heading out for a corner. Nani chased the lost cause and sent the ball back toward Welbeck. Sergio Ramos panicked and turned the ball into his own net. It was nothing less than United deserved and they looked odds-on to progress from that point.

Cakir promptly ruined the game.

Nani and Alvaro Arbeloa clashed innocuously contesting a high ball and both went to ground. Tougher challenges are made in netball. When the referee reached for the red card, everyone at Old Trafford was stunned. The Madrid players did not expect it and had not been protesting at all. It was simply an insane decision, plucked from space. United had just played their best 60 minutes of the season, but now they were up against it.

Mourinho wasted no time to make his tactical switch. Arbeloa, his work seemingly done, was replaced by Luka Modric. Some five minutes later, the Croatian scored a cracker from 25 yards, in off the post. Madrid kept pushing forward and Ronaldo skewered in a cross from Gonzalo Higuain -- 2-1 Madrid. In five crazy minutes the game had been turned on its head. The United fans began to sing "We’ll never die."

Ryan Giggs nearly capped a sublime performance with a headed goal in the 82nd minute but the game was gone by then. The attempt was pawed away by Lopez. The Madrid goalkeeper blocked a van Persie shot seconds later, as United went in search of a redemptive strike, and another bullet header in injury time, too. Lopez had a fine performance in goal and has deputised superbly for Iker Casillas.

Mourinho has many detractors, but behaved with true class here and hugged Ferguson as the game drew to a close. The abiding memory of the tie for many will be the standing ovation for Giggs in Madrid. The fans of very few clubs really understand football -- Madrid fans know what this sport is all about. And they will know that Manchester United were the better team here. A travesty of a result, United will need to pick themselves up for the league.

Follow Mark on @markjpayne

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