Reasons to be optimistic for Manchester United

Posted by Musa Okwonga

Manchester United 1, Real Madrid 2: few defeats in Sir Alex Ferguson's managerial career can have been as unsatisfactory as this. Until the controversial dismissal of Nani in the 56th minute, he had successfully outcoached Jose Mourinho, one of the world's foremost tacticians. He had secured a 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu, had kept Cristiano Ronaldo largely at bay and had even seen his team take the lead on the night, with Sergio Ramos turning Nani's cross into his own net just after half-time. And then came Cuneyt Cakir's fateful decision to send off the Portugal winger, and within the next 13 minutes the home side conceded two goals. Rarely has the momentum of an entire tie shifted so sharply.

- UEFA backs Old Trafford referee
- Rigg: Under-par Madrid benefit from dismissal
- Delaney: Real take full advantage of red card

The most enduring sympathy must be for Nani. While Ferguson has a core of fine young players who can form the basis of another great United team, he does not see Nani among them. David De Gea was beaten on Tuesday night by two fine strikes, the first an outstanding effort by Luka Modric, but over the two legs he came of age as one of Europe's best goalkeepers. Rafael, after an uncertain start in Madrid, acquitted himself as well as he had all season. These were just two of the positive stories. Nani, meanwhile, has spent much of the season anxiously eyeing the Old Trafford exit. By far the most naturally gifted wide man at United, he is almost the most mercurial, and it was poignant to see him walking forlornly down the tunnel, cut abruptly from his final audition for a place in his club's future.

It seems unfair that this is how Nani should go out. This, after all, was his moment for redemption. Included ahead of Wayne Rooney, who is in fitful form, and Shinji Kagawa, the hat-trick man of last Saturday, the stage was apparently set for him. Few match reports will record that he was possibly the game's best attacker on the night, alongside his team-mate Danny Welbeck or Madrid's Gonzalo Higuain. They will not remember that his repeated exposure of Alvaro Arbeloa down the left flank gave United every chance of advancing to the next round; it was notable that as soon as he came off, Mourinho withdrew the ailing Arbeloa for Modric, who shortly afterwards made the most spectacular of interventions.

Football does not wait gladly upon those who are making a valiant last stand, and so it was for Nani. Another player who will eye next year's competition with a sense of unfinished business is Robin van Persie. Though the Dutchman has been his team's key player this season, his effect on this contest was minimal, and it would be little wonder if he has reflected on his missed chance at the Bernabeu. There, in the closing stages, he unaccountably squandered a clear opportunity to give his side a second away goal.

He, like Rooney, should be at Old Trafford next year to make his mark on this tournament. The England forward would have been aggrieved to start as a substitute, even though his exclusion preceded one of United's most mature performances of the season.

Despite United's great disappointment, it must be remembered that this is a season of transition, where they are primarily looking to tear the reins of the Premier League back from Manchester City. In that context, a long Champions League voyage may have been a bonus, particularly given their indifferent form for most of the opening round. Certainly, when they were trailing to SC Braga and CFR Cluj, a defeat to Madrid would not have been so surprising. Had they advanced past Mourinho's men, they would still have had to contend with Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Juventus, each of whom have been imperious in Europe, to say nothing of AC Milan, who look resurgent on the continent once more.

None of this will offer any comfort to United so soon after so galling a loss, yet the grounds for optimism are there. And, as Ferguson knows from his Champions League wins of 1999 and 2008, the greatest victories are often preceded by a stretch of barren years. For now, then, he and his team must taste yet another bitter spring.

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