Manchester United will have left Old Trafford tonight heartbroken and devastated, with a feeling that they were unfairly eliminated from the UEFA Champions League.
Going down 2-1 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate to Real Madrid, the Red Devils were leading 1-0 and looking in control of their destiny when winger Nani was sent off on a controversial call by referee Cuneyt Cakir for a challenge on Madrid defender Alvaro Arbeloa.
Following the red card, United quickly conceded two goals through Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo, and were unable to peg back the margin after that.
Yet the red card, and the falling out that will soon emerge from it, will be what dominates the headlines and discussions from a United point of view—rather than the actual game of Champions League football that took place on the night.
Here's the biggest takeaways for United in their heartbreaking loss.
Red Card or Not, United Cannot Solely Blame the Referee
Let's get this one out of the way early—regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the red card for Nani, the referee cannot is not solely to blame here.
Regardless of whether you felt it was a red card or felt it was simply a free kick, the reality is that United were still leading 1-0 at the time of the dismissal and they still conceded two goals after that. The referee did not give up the goals, United did, and they lost the game.
Of course the red card impacted the game and of course it opened United up at the back. There is little doubting that it gave Madrid more possession, more attacking space and eventually two goals on the night—and that it ultimately won them the game here.
It was the Red Devils themselves who gave Modric too much time on the edge of the box and did not deal with the cross for Ronaldo's goal either. Even with 11 men, the likelihood of both of goals still happening is high—although it is hard to asses that unrealistic hypothetical situation.
United cannot solely blame the referee for defeat—regardless of where they stand on the red card—and they must take responsibility for the goals.
United Won the Tactical Battle
It's almost funny to believe now that the biggest storyline before the match was that Sir Alex Ferguson had left Wayne Rooney on the bench here. The fact that he'd done it with Shinji Kagawa there also after the pair tore up Norwich City on the weekend was simply mind-baffling.
Yet as the first half wore on, the decision to leave both midfielders out was proving to be an inspired decision by the veteran United manager.
Ryan Giggs was superb on the right, Danny Welbeck was brilliant through the middle, and Michael Carrick ruled the central part of the field behind them both.
United went into half-time not necessarily needing a goal, but knowing that they had two fresh, star midfielders sitting on the bench to take over when needed. Ferguson would be able to get to the 60th minute mark, or even later if things were going well, and introduce the two superstars to combat a somewhat tired and overworked Real Madrid midfield.
Ultimately, the red card would change that dramatically, and the two quick goals conceded would force that plan to become a complete pipe-dream here.
But had it remained 11-a-side, United would have loved their chances at toppling Madrid given the way they had won the tactical battle of the first half. Even if they were down 2-1 at the time, with fresh legs about to come on, they'd have certainly made this one closer in the end.
Alas, it was not to be.
United Will Look Back and Rue Missed Opportunities
One of the other huge reasons why United cannot solely blame the referee here for "ruining the game" and "cheating" them out of the win is the fact that offensively, the Red Devils blew several chances that would have otherwise won them the game.
Across both legs, United squandered great opportunities to score decisive goals, and they will no doubt look back and rue those misses following their loss.
Robin van Persie should have scored twice, if not more in the first leg. He should have done the same again in this one, as should have Danny Welbeck at least twice. Nemanja Vidic was inches away on more than one occasion from scoring headers on goal and Rooney blazed over the bar from six yards out, with the game slipping away from United.
Had all, or even one, of those chances gone in, this game would have been completely different. United would not have been chasing down 2-1 here with a big lead from the first leg or they would not have even been down 2-1 at all at Old Trafford.
Either way, the Red Devils squandered a myriad of chances throughout both legs that ultimately cost them their spot in the Champions League quarterfinals. Yes, a red card—rightly or wrongly—didn't help, but in the end, they only have themselves to blame for the loss.
Their attack and their defense simply wasn't good enough.
What did you takeaway from Manchester United's 2-1 defeat?
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