Nani: enthusiasm overshadows judgement
It is never about the players these days. It is usually about the referee who might have made a mistake, the manager who did not turn up for a press conference, and the manager who left the field a minute before it finished.
Somewhere amid this narrative of peripherals, Real Madrid defeated Manchester United 2-1 at Old Trafford in the Uefa Champions League on Tuesday night, but few people were talking about the football. This was all about one referee and two managers.
As usual, there were more questions than answers. Did Nani’s challenge on Alvaro Arbeloa warrant a red card? Was Jose Mourinho’s misconceived statement about United being the better team an attempt to ingratiate himself with the Old Trafford club, in the hope, perhaps, of one day landing a job there? Why cannot United lose with grace?
Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, was incensed at Cuneyt Cakir’s decision to send off Nani, perhaps with some justification. On one hand, Nani was clearly going for the ball, with no intent to hurt Arbeloa. On the other, his foot was high, his studs were exposed, and he caught the Real Madrid full back in a sensitive area.
The red card was controversial because the match was so significant, but it is likely that other referees – but by no means all – would made the same call in matches at all levels. Nani made it easy for Cakir. Nani took too much of a risk. Nani’s enthusiasm outweighed his judgement. And in a game where there is often no right or wrong answer, Cakir’s decision fell within the margins of what was reasonable.
While one can understand United’s rage, the reaction of their players afterwards – particular of Rio Ferdinand – was disgraceful and lacking in class. I have no doubt that had the Nani- Arbeloa incident occurred in reverse, with Arbeloa committing the “foul”, the United players would have called for the dismissal of the Real Madrid player.
Alas, there is a culture of entitlement at Old Trafford, which makes it difficult for some of the players, and certainly for Alex Ferguson, to deal appropriately when controversial decisions go against United.
Cakir was brave. He can justify his decision on many levels. And Nani, while clearly not intending to hurt Arbeloa, could certainly have put the player out of action for the remainder of the season.
While Mourinho’s decision to bring on Luka Modric as a substitute was clever, Ferguson will no doubt say that the sending-off exaggerated Modric’s influence. It is certainly true that the sending-off exaggerated Cristiano Ronaldo’s influence. Ronaldo had been peripheral when it was 11 versus 11. Only when United pressed in the latter stages did Ronaldo look world class.
Once Modric had equalised and Ronaldo scored the second, United were excellent, which begs another key question: why was Ferguson so conservative in his team selection?
Over the two legs, there was nothing to choose between the teams. Mourinho was wrong. The best team did not lose. There was no “best team” here. Real Madrid were the first among equals because of a refereeing decision that was neither wrong nor right. On such fine margins are big matches won and lost.
It was left to Mourinho to walk off before the end, in typical drama-queen fashion, to take even more attention away from the players. Or maybe he was trying to take the attention away from Cakir.