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Controversial red card sees Real Madrid eliminate Manchester United

Mar 5, 2013, 4:45 PM EST

Manchester United v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Getty Images

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).

(MORE: Opposition viewpoint from ProSoccerTalk; this was the wrong decision)

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:

  1. schlom - Mar 5, 2013 at 5:59 PM

    Shouldn’t a red card for dangerous play actually be dangerous?

  2. bquills - Mar 5, 2013 at 6:01 PM

    Not a red card for me… yellow for dangerous play. I see it the same as when a player a attempts a bicycle kick in a crowded area while a defender goes to head the ball. As long as the kicker has his eye on the ball and would have made contact if not for the intervening player, it’s just “dangerous” but not “violent” or “serious foul play”.

  3. term3186 - Mar 5, 2013 at 7:08 PM

    I’m going to have to vote for yellow as well? Dangerous? Sure. Reckless? Definitely. But Excessive Force – required for a red? I just don’t see it. that hit is about as gentle as it could possibly be. Unintentional and reckless. Yellow for me. Now I don’t blame the referee really. That hit probably looked awful in real time, and here we have the benefit of slow motion replay.

    • Richard Farley - Mar 5, 2013 at 7:10 PM

      It would be interesting to hear people’s definitions of excessive force. I’d love to read how people interpret that term and how that interpretation gets mapped onto this situation.

      • joeyt360 - Mar 5, 2013 at 7:15 PM

        What I’m seeing is that Nani doesn’t see the guy until it’s too late. It’s definitionally impossible to be using ‘excessive force’ if you don’t even intend to be going in for a challenge, and it looks to me like Nani thinks he’s about to settle the ball. That is an absolutely textbook “dangerous play” yellow to me.

      • pdway - Mar 5, 2013 at 7:30 PM

        agree w/joeyt360. i don’t think Nani saw the guy either – and there was clearly zero intent, which should basically be the deciding factor in a red v. yellow situation.

        I saw demba ba get kicked in the face (broke his nose) in a chelsea game a couple weeks back, and there wasn’t even a yellow given, let alone a red, in a game of this magnitude.

        i’m not particularly a fan of either of these teams, but the red card ruined the game for me – it changed everything.

  4. BigBeachBall - Mar 5, 2013 at 9:21 PM

    Its a dangerous play… Deserves a card of some sort….very unfortunate…

  5. deman951 - Mar 5, 2013 at 10:02 PM

    After seeing the horrible red card for Nani and how it completely changed the game all I can think about is the betting scandal involving European soccer.

  6. gmk17 - Mar 5, 2013 at 11:02 PM

    The author calls it an obligatory red and says swallowing whistle would have been another controversy. There was nothing “obligatory” about it, a yellow would have sufficed and no one would have complained from either side.

  7. tridecagon - Mar 6, 2013 at 1:51 AM

    Don’t see the rationale for red here either. Zero intent, no way Nani could have known that the opponent was there. You could argue that Arbeloa ran into Nani’s foot, the only reason it was a “kick” was because both players were moving at speed toward either.

    Yellow for dangerous play would have been plenty.

  8. forked - Mar 6, 2013 at 2:46 AM

    “But Nani made a mistake. An innocent, absent-minded mistake.”

    Innocent mistake = yellow, not red.

  9. jsmee - Mar 6, 2013 at 4:13 AM

    Red card or swallow his whistle? I don’t know what you were watching but there was no intent to injure. Just watching how the players reacted showed what they thought about it. Should have been a yellow card and let the players decide the outcome. It would have been better if he had choked on his whistle because he surely choked on his call!

  10. smitteons - Mar 6, 2013 at 4:29 PM

    Excessive force, by FIFA rules, means going at another player intentionally and off the ball and/or tackling with both legs “cleats up”. Nani didn’t see Arbeloa therefore I think it should be a yellow.

  11. jimeejohnson - Mar 9, 2013 at 3:06 AM

    Bloody ole England!

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