Ronaldo, Real Madrid salvage season, leave Manchester United seeing red

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports
Manchester United's Nani, 2nd left, is shown a red card during the Champions League round of 16 soccer match against Real Madrid at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Tuesday, March 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
Manchester United's Nani, 2nd left, is shown a red card during the Champions League round of 16 soccer match against Real Madrid at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Tuesday, March 5, 2013. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

It was the victory that saved his season – and probably his job – but Jose Mourinho was in no mood to celebrate on Tuesday.

The Real Madrid boss and self-proclaimed "Special One" saw his team rescue itself from Champions League elimination with a 2-1 comeback victory against Manchester United at Old Trafford to progress to the quarterfinals, 3-2 on aggregate.

Yet, while a controversy raged about the red card issued to United's Portuguese star Nani, a decision that appeared to turn the contest on its head, Mourinho refused to accept any plaudits for the most hotly-debated result of the European soccer season.

Even before the final whistle, Mourinho turned to shake the hand of his friend Sir Alex Ferguson, the simmering United boss who would point his finger and gesture furiously at Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir at the conclusion of the match, while his players surrounded the official and bombarded him with demands for explanation while offering sarcastic applause.

By then Mourinho had already reached the tunnel and was making his way towards a postgame interview that was extraordinarily humble for a man who has never shied away from boasting and self-promotion.

"Independent of the decision, the best team lost," Mourinho said. "We didn't play well. We didn't deserve to win. But football is like this. I am not speaking about the [red card] because I am not sure about it. But independent of this, the best team lost."

Correct or not, with Madrid's Spanish league title hopes long since dead and buried, Tuesday's revival saved the club from a depressing crawl towards the end of the season.

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After Sergio Ramos deflected Nani's cross into his own net for an own goal after 48 minutes, it looked like Mourinho's men were headed for the exit door, with United holding both the lead and a swell of momentum.

That all changed with one flash of Cakir's card, in one of the more puzzling refereeing decisions of the campaign. Nani perhaps deserved a yellow card for his collision with Alvaro Arbeloa as he approached the ball with a raised foot, but with his eye on the ball there was surely none of the malicious intent that would necessitate his dismissal.

Cakir has officiated some of the biggest games in soccer but has been involved in controversy in the past. Prior to the 2012 European Championship semifinal between Nani's Portugal and Spain, his appointment was criticized by Portuguese federation chiefs, who hinted at a perceived bias and spoke of the close relationship between Turkish and Spanish soccer administrators.

Conspiracy theorists would have been given extra fuel if they took a glance at the referee's Twitter account on Tuesday; Cakir follows only 38 handles, but two of them are @Cristiano and @RealMadrid.

After Nani saw red, Madrid was suddenly re-energized and piled men forward. Sixty-six minutes in, substitute Luka Modric leveled the score with a fierce strike from the edge of the area that left goalkeeper David De Gea with no chance and just moments later Cristiano Ronaldo effectively completed the job against his former team.

Ronaldo slid home the go-ahead goal at the far post before refusing to celebrate, just as when he scored with a header in the first leg.

Playing a man down and needing two goals to save themselves, United was never able to reestablish a foothold and their hope of a dream double of the English Premier League title and the Champions League slipped away as their seething frustration at the referee mounted.

Yet while Madrid's joy at progressing to the last eight might have been tempered by Mourinho's displeasure, Spanish fans who believe in fate and coincidence will take great hope from the nature of the outcome.

It was nine years ago when Mourinho truly brought himself to the attention of the soccer world. Back then, his Porto team was a heavy underdog facing United at the same stage of the tournament, only to progress thanks to a late fightback.

Within months Mourinho's team had lifted the trophy, springboarding him to the Chelsea job and ensuing fame and fortune. This time, it is prevented, at least for now, what would likely have been a messy end to his often fractious marriage with Madrid, with the club desperate to add Europe's biggest prize for a record 10th time.

After this they have been installed as the clear bookies' favorites, and have clearly gained confidence from beating their hated Spanish rivals twice over the course of the past week.

Typical of Mourinho and his unpredictable nature, there was not as much as a grin after this potentially pivotal result, but if Madrid does go on to claim the trophy in May he will surely look back on this night when fortune smiled upon him.

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