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What we learned as Real Madrid eliminated Manchester United

Mar 5, 2013, 7:37 PM EDT

Real Madrid's captain Sergio Ramos scores an own goal past their goalkeeper Diego Lopez during their Champions League soccer match against Manchester United at Old Trafford stadium in Manchester

What was a captivating game between two of the worlds biggest clubs became controversial the minute Nani’s boot met Álvaro Arbeloa’s chest. But before the foul, we had one of the more interesting matches of the Champions League season, one where Sir Alex Ferguson’s tactics had put Manchester United on the cusp of the quarterfinals.

And the decisions that enabled those tactics started with Manchester United’s starting XI:

  • Wayne Rooney misses out on the starting  XI - What was Alex Ferguson thinking, sitting one of his two cornerstone players? Thankfully, a few scribes caught up to him prematch and got his thoughts. He wanted Ryan Giggs on the right to help against Cristiano Ronaldo (where Rooney had failed in leg one), and he liked Danny Welbeck as his best defender against Xabi Alonso in the middle. Why Rooney didn’t get the start on the left of United’s 4-4-2, I’m not sure, but there was at least some method to the madness.
  • And the madness worked - Welbeck silenced Alonso, forcing Sergio Ramos and Sami Khedira to spend more time with the ball at their feet. Giggs was much better along the right than Rooney had been at the Bernabeu, perhaps forcing José Mourinho to flip Ronaldo to the right flank in the eighth minute. Before Nani’s sending off, Real Madrid scarcely threatened David de Gea.
  • Sergio Ramos held Real Madrid together - The 48th minute own goal was ironic, a ball sent through the six by Nani that went off Ramos’s right leg and in. Until that point of the match, Ramos had clearly been the match’s best player, not only performing admirably defensively against a United side that used Welbeck’s speed to threaten on the counter but also stepping into midfield to play the ball while Alonso was marked out of the game. Replace Ramos with a normal defender and Real Madrid may not have been within one when Nani’s seen off.
  • Did I mention Nani was sent off? - Of course I did. Here’s one view, Steve’s counter point, and some analysis from Graham Poll that highlights the fissures in the controversy.
  • United had a bad 10 minutes - Given how Ferguson set up his team, United could have held on for the last 32 minutes. But the red card was a controversial, contentious event. It’s not surprising United may have lost focus. Luka Modric scored about five minutes after play resumed. Cristiano Ronaldo scored two minutes later, after which United reasserted control. But by then, it was too late.
  • Diego López’s contributions will be forgotten – Even down a man, United had a number of chances to pull even. Yes, they would have needed another goal, but if it weren’t for Diego López, United may have been able to build that momentum. The January buy of the former Villarreal No. 1 paid off today.

What now for both of these teams?

It’s tough for Manchester United to move on, but they have nothing to be ashamed of. They got a tough Round of 16 draw, had to face one of the tournament’s best teams, yet were arguably the better side. José Mourinho admitted as much after the game.

For the second time in four years, United’s dealt a bitter knockout round exit, but coming off a disappointing 2011-12 tournament, the Red Devils affirmed their place as one of the world’s elites. The team can be proud.

And credit Real Madrid for getting through them, particularly having to win a second leg at Old Trafford. For Mourinho, it’s the second time in his career he’s done so, though this time he needed some help from one of his countrymen.

Unable to consistently generate chances against United, it’s difficult to see Real Madrid as being on Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund’s level. But between their talent and their coach, they have a chance at that decima. That’s all that matters.

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