By Anthony Lopopolo
Sir Alex Ferguson lost it. He saw the red card and charged like a bull. He slammed the seat in front of him, pushing a team official out of his way to reach the touchline, looking this way and that, as if searching for an answer. There were none. In a seemingly innocuous attempt to cushion the ball floating over him, Nani collided with Real Madrid’s Alvaro Arbeloa and caught him with his cleat. He was sent off.
Just minutes before, Manchester United enjoyed the product of Nani’s labour. The winger picked up the ball inside the box and sent it inward, where Madrid’s Sergio Ramos knocked it into his own goal. All the risks Ferguson took looked justified. Wayne Rooney was sitting on the bench, but the manager’s functional players had followed his orders: they sat back, gifted Madrid the ball and struck on the counter with seething pace.
United were beating their opponent at their own damn game.
And then it all fell apart. The dismissal of Nani, whether it was right or wrong or misunderstood or calculated — Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir had a good couple of minutes to deliberate his verdict, and brandished his red card almost out of nowhere — forever took the protagonist’s role in the game. It robbed the game of its purity. It conjured questions in a game that had been such a wonderful display of football. The defending was masterful. The play was quick. The game was open, a chess board with all its pieces cast in strategic places by each of its players, Ferguson and his friend Jose Mourinho. Ferguson was winning.
Then an undue interruption: in the form of Nani, the pride and wind and the concentration that got United this far in the game left the match. Ferguson barked at the fourth official, who just told him to calm down. And he did. He drew that familiar scowl on his face, while chewing his gum ever so fiercely, and gestured to the crowd. Come on! Come on! Get behind our lads, Ferguson said with his hands, fluttering in front of his choir of 74,959 at Old Trafford on Tuesday. He looked like he wanted to channel everyone’s frustration and concentrate that energy on the greater good: winning it.
But that wish wasn’t granted.