Now we will never know how it should have ended.
We know the result -- Real Madrid eliminated Manchester United
from UEFA Champions League play with a 2-1 victory Tuesday at Old Trafford -- and we therefore know which team advanced. But we also know the course of an absorbing encounter was definitively altered by the referee
. I am almost always a defender of hard-pressed match officials -- but not this time.
Jose Mourinho said it best. Before kick-off the Real Madrid coach predicted it was a match "the world will stop" to see. Two of the biggest clubs in world soccer going head to head for a place in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League was a dish too tasty to resist.
So we stopped. Some of us picked sides and tried to predict a winner. Would Manchester United, with home advantage and an away goal in the bag, prevail, or could The Special One produce another footballing rabbit out of the hat and enhance his own considerable reputation?
The list of potential storylines was equally fascinating. Would Cristiano Ronaldo return to Old Trafford in triumph or tears? Would Ryan Giggs celebrate one more champagne moment on his 1000th appearance for United? Would Mourinho face the axe if his modern day Galacticos failed to deliver?
A storyline indeed emerged. An all consuming talking point which dwarfed the intricacies of the game itself. Forget Ramos' bizarre own-goal; forget Modric's magnificent equalizer -- this was a game changer of seismic proportions which no one saw coming and few will forget.
Turkish referee Cüneyt Çakır saw something the rest of the watching world missed. His decision to issue a straight red card to United's Portuguese winger Nani must have baffled and bewildered even the most ardent Real Madrid fan.
More significantly, the match official ruined arguably the most important game of the year.
Referee steals the spotlight
In any competitive sport there must be winners and losers. My loyalty lay in neither camp in the calm before the Old Trafford storm. My only hope was to witness a game for the ages, a tactical masterclass, and a deserved winner declared when battle was done.
We were robbed. The referee's intervention took away that privilege. The sending off changed everything -- the atmosphere, the mood, the initiative, and the tempo of a true heavyweight clash, which was building to a thrilling finale.
Ultimately, it is the game which suffers. The two teams will move on in different directions. Madrid may go onto make Mourinho a three-time Champions League winner. United will lick their wounds and then refocus on becoming English champions once again.
But soccer is left with another kick in the teeth. It is tarnished by more unwanted controversy, another unsatisfactory conclusion and an ugly aftermath where the debate is not about which team was better but about why video replays should be employed far beyond the limits of goal-line technology.
As for Mourinho's brief post match assessment that "the better team lost," I, for one, am not buying it. His backhanded compliment had everything to do with respect for a raging Sir Alex Ferguson and the fact the United job, once Ferguson retires, is the one he covets above all others.
The fact is the better team won. Over two legs, Real Madrid had the edge and in the decider accomplished that rarest of achievements -- a victory at Old Trafford courtesy of a pair of well executed goals and a fine display of goalkeeping at the other end.
If there was a saving grace it came from an unlikely source. Ronaldo, so often vilified for his playacting despite his immense skill, refused to celebrate his winning goal on his return to Old Trafford.
Amid a maelstrom of controversy it was a welcome touch of class.
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