Up 1-0 approaching the hour mark, Manchester United seemed destined for the Champions League quarterfinals. Their overall lead in the two-legged round was 2-1, and Real Madrid hadn’t had a clear look on goalkeeper David de Gea all day. After a year of living with the embarrassment of last year’s group stage exit, the Red Devils were set for redemption.
Then came controversy. A ball cleared out of Manchester United’s end saw Nani turn up field, jump, and raise his leg to try and trap the ball. But Real Madrid defender Álvaro Arbeloa was coming on to trap the ball. When the United attacker unintentionally extended his foot into his opponent’s chest, he earned a red card.
And despite the debate that’s destined to follow, the video evidence leaves little doubt. This is a red card offense:
(image courtesy The Big Lead)
Ten minutes later, Luka Modric equalized. Two minutes after that, Cristiano Ronaldo scored, putting Real Madrid through. One errant foul and controversial red card later, Manchester United as eliminated from Champions League.
Debate seems obligatory following any important call, and there was no shortage of people who felt Turkish referee Cunyet Cakir ruined this match. But that’s a difficult case to make when you look at the evidence. Nani lifts his boot to near-shoulder level (after he’d already elevated) and made contact with a player’s chest. There have certainly been more egregious fouls, but this one was an obligatory red. Had Cakir swallowed his whistle, the controversy would have been worse (and justified).
The margin for error was small. Manchester United was the better team over the first hour, their control of play leading to a Sergio Ramos own goal in the 48th minute. And even after going down to 10-men, Manchester United had chances to equalize, even if that meant they still would have lost on away goals.
But Nani made a mistake. An innocent, absent-minded mistake. That cost his team the match. If Arbeloa’s not there, the contact isn’t flush, the referee swallows his whistle or Nani just keeps his foot at a reasonable height, United goes through.
Instead, United’s out of Champions League. Real Madrid’s dream of a decima lives on.
More on today’s match: