Jose Mourinho demonstrated in Copa del Rey the perfect strategy to approach a two-leg Cup tie with 2nd leg playing away. A week after their triumph at Camp Nou, Real Madrid was looking for an encore at the Theatre of Dreams. Trailing only by an away goal, Jose Mourinho fielded his strongest formation, with focus all on the returning Cristiano Ronaldo.
Although the Portuguese promised to attack outside their home soil, Real Madrid struggled to take control of the game early on. Manchester United were disciplined and composed with possession. Instead of allowing rooms for Real Madrid to launch counter attacks, Michael Carrick orchestrated the midfield, while Rafael and Patrice Evra operated with limited fantasy, to ensure both Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, possibly not with the pace any more to deal with Mesut Ozil and Ronaldo, were well protected.
Dropping Wayne Rooney was a huge decision, but Alex Ferguson certainly made the correct one. The movement of Danny Welbeck was invaluable to the Red Devils, which Mourinho’s side required several excellent efforts from Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane to prevail against United’s counter attacks. Shifting Ryan Giggs to the right flank was another clever trick to help stabilise the young Rafael against their former team mate. Sir Alex indeed got all his tactics right and Manchester United had always been looking like the better team of the night.
A well-crafted attack sparked off by Rafael ultimately led to an unfortunate own goal by Sergio Ramos, although there would be little argument that United truly deserved the lead. Just as the match was entering the climax, referee Cakir made a game-changing decision that swung the momentum of the match completely.
Nani’s high boot had undoubtedly caught Alvario Arbeloa, but with his both eyes on the ball, it is questionable whether it was an intentional dangerous tackle or an attempt to control the ball in the air. United fans have every rights to be fuming. Arbeloa was only booked in the first half for a tackle on Evra, which his boot caught Evra’s thigh and would be physically impossible to catch the ball. If Nani’s challenge was ranked as a dangerous tackle, Arbeloa should also be sent off for an intentional and cynical dangerous foul.
Jose Mourinho took minimal time to take advantage of the situation. Luka Modric came in for Arbeloa shortly after Nani’s sent off and the Croatian equalised with a world-class curling shot. Cristiano Ronaldo then converted Higuain cross to put United in the trailing position, needing two goals to advance to the Quarter Final.
It sounds to be a job with ease, but let’s not forget it is not always easy to play against a team of 10. Knowing their opponents had been by far the better team and the injury time at Old Trafford could be horrendous, Mourinho decided to go cautious rather than looking for the clinching third goal. The tactician is a recognised master in getting the results he wants, and it was definitely the right move. Manchester United admirably fought till the last minute, despite being a man down, and Los Blancos needed to call on Diego Lopez for several good saves to deny Red Devil’s comeback.
Finally, “the better team lost”, quoted from Jose Mourinho. Unfortunately, the clash of extraordinary quality was largely determined by one single decision. Goal-line technology is coming to practice next season. Disputes over controversial goals will hopefully be settled. Nevertheless, there are more controversies in football matches which are hinged on human decisions. Are we seeing more facilities to be put in place to ensure football matches are only to be decided by the quality of the teams, rather than human errors?