The game that the world stopped to watch…

India Rose Matharu-Daley 6 March 2013

India Rose Matharu-Daley reports from her evening at the Theatre of Dreams…

“The world will stop to watch this tie,” prophesised Jose Mourinho. The sheer scale of the Champions League second-round fixture was hard to comprehend. An estimated 1 billion tuned in to watch Real Madrid take on Manchester United, two of Europe’s most glamorous and successful football empires. Mourinho said of Tuesday night’s second leg at Old Trafford: “It looks like a final.”

The match held a great significance for many stars. It saw Cristiano Ronaldo “come home” – his return to Old Trafford for the first time since his £80 million transfer to Real Madrid in 2008. Few players are still loved by the clubs they leave. United’s recent signing, Robin van Persie, for example, is now a villain for Arsenal supporters. Yet Ronaldo was reminded of his place in the Manchester United pantheon when 75,000 home fans sang his name. Sir Alex Ferguson’s protege is still deeply fond of his old team. Rumours have been circulating that the game could preclude Ronaldo’s returning to Manchester on a more permanent basis, possibly in the summer. That seems quixotic.

Tuesday night’s game was also Ryan Giggs’ 1,000th senior professional appearance. The Welshman is now the most decorated player in the Premier League and is held in great esteem in Europe, receiving generous applause from the Real fans before the first leg at the Bernabeu.

The real clash of the titans, however, was in the dugouts: Jose Mourinho versus Sir Alex Ferguson. The Scotsman’s quarter-century at Old Trafford contrasts sharply with Mourinho’s peripatetic career. “The Special One” burst in to international fame when he ran half the length of the pitch in jubilation as his Porto side knocked Manchester United out of Europe in 2004. Mourinho scooped the domestic title from the Red Devils as Chelsea gaffer in 2005 and 2006.

Thus the scene was set. My family and I, ardent Manchester United fans, travelled north, meeting Denis Irwin the legendary left back on a special supporters’ chartered train, to take in the spectacle.

The atmosphere was feverish and from the terraces of the Stretford end it seemed an evenly balanced first half. Ronaldo threatened briefly and young Tom Cleverly was sparky going forward.

The second began slowly for United, who then broke through on the attack, forcing an own goal from Sergio Ramos. The Red Devils enjoyed less than ten minutes in the ascendancy before the pivotal moment of the game: Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir’s decision to send off Nani for an aerial challenge on Real Madrid defender Alvaro Arbeloa. The red card provoked outrage amongst the home team. They argued that Nani was fixed on the flight of the ball and did not see his opponent, whose stomach he grazed with his studs.

Whether the contact from Nani’s raised boot was cynical or inadvertent, United’s ten men then sank too deep in to defence before Luka Modric’s sweeping strike from outside the box brought the score to 1-1. Three minutes later Ronaldo extinguished his old club’s hopes for European advancement as he slid in to the box to convert Gonzalo Higuain’s cross. Only then did the hosts throw off their conservatism and responded relentlessly to the crowd’s urges of “attack, attack, attack”, with Giggs providing cervine moments of dynamism and the Real keeper making some extraordinary saves to deny the Red Devils.

Needing two goals to win with only ten men on the field, by now the Mancunians sensed that the end was nigh. Looking back to the 1958 Munich Air Disaster, which claimed the lives of eleven Manchester United players and staff members, the refrain “We’ll Never Die” reverberated around the stadium. Like a phoenix from the ashes, ten years on from that calamity, the Devils went on to win the European Cup. Alas, not this time.

The Munich Air Disaster was also an important chapter in the friendship between Real Madrid and Manchester United. The Spanish giants won the European Cup in 1958, but suggested it be awarded to United that year. The managers carried forward that tradition of mutual respect after the final whistle of Tuesday’s tie. Mourinho diplomatically attested that “the best team lost”.

It was a long journey back to the Bridge of Sighs…

India Rose Matharu-Daley