When looking back on Manchester United's Champions League elimination at the hands of Real Madrid, most fans will probably point to the red card shown to Nani. While that was clearly a turning point, the decision to bench Wayne Rooney looms large.
It was a shocking choice by Sir Alex Ferguson, who's never been afraid to bench key players regardless of the circumstances. Whether the decision to battle Madrid without Rooney was tactical or simply to make a statement is up for debate.
Mark Ogden of the Telegraph suggests the decision sends a message that the longtime Red Devils star could be nearing the end of his run at Old Trafford. It was an opinion backed up by former United midfielder Roy Keane prior to the match.
"Maybe the writing is on the wall for him," said Roy Keane in the ITV studio before the game. "We have to trust the manager a bit tonight but in terms of the way Wayne carried on in the last year of his [previous] contract, maybe he has decided to go about getting Robin van Persie up and running."
Although there's little doubt Robin van Persie's arrival knocked Rooney out of his comfort zone atop the formation, the England international finally seemed to be settling into his new role. His performance against Norwich was one of his best of the campaign.
Ferguson would use fitness as the chief reason Rooney was left out of the starting lineup in favor of Nani, according to the BBC.
Wayne Rooney needs a game or two. He did well in the second half against Norwich, but he looked like he needed a game. He probably will come on in the second half and win the game for us!
The first part of his final statement was correct. Rooney did come on in the second half, about 15 minutes after Nani was sent off. Unfortunately for United, the tide had already turned by that point with two Madrid goals and Rooney wasn't enough to flip it back in their favor.
Make no mistake, the match and a spot in the Champions League quarterfinals was available for the taking in the first half. Cristiano Ronaldo failed to make a serious impact and United stood toe-to-toe with the Spanish giants defensively.
They didn't have enough offensive firepower to seriously concern the Madrid defense, which was once again highlighted by rising star Raphael Varane. United had a chance to take control of the match on home turf and just couldn't generate the necessary chances.
It's hard to believe Rooney couldn't have helped in that area. Regardless of fitness concerns, players can usually run on pure adrenaline for Champions League matches against high-profile opponents like Real Madrid. The competitive fire supersedes the need for rest.
If he had started and built off his terrific performance against Norwich, there's a good chance United would have been able to make a much greater impact in the attacking third in the opening half. The club could have perhaps even generated a goal and changed the entire complexion of the match.
Instead, United was forced to spend far too much time defending and when that happens it's usually going to backfire eventually, red card or not.
Sure enough, Madrid manager Jose Mourinho sensed his opportunity to strike after the Nani ejection. He quickly inserted Luka Modric, who leveled the match after less than 10 minutes, before Ronaldo grabbed the eventual winner against his old club moments later.
Would Los Blancos have turned the game around so quickly without the red card? Probably not. They certainly weren't playing as well as they did in back-to-back victories over Barcelona.
Yet, it's also important to remember United had a chance to seize the match before the controversial red. They didn't and the defending La Liga champions took full advantage.
Starting Rooney wouldn't have guaranteed a spot in the next round, but it certainly would have increased United's chances. Giving him 17 minutes plus stoppage time to make an impact simply wasn't enough, especially considering the situation.
While the talk will now shift to Rooney's future at Old Trafford, the opportunity the club let slip away is even more important. Ferguson made a risky decision, and it didn't pay off.