Ferguson and his lionhearted team suffer tragic travesty of justice

If ever there was a moment when the so-called guardians of football, in the form of UEFA and their angelic referees, shamed a great game and drained the joy out of it for its millions of adoring acolytes, it was in the fifty-sixth minute of the second leg between Manchester United and Real Madrid yesterday. For in choosing to utterly reject his duty to uphold the spirit and occasion of one of football’s most sacrosanct events – the meeting of two torch-carriers of the game in Manchester United and Real Madrid -, in favour of enforcing a crassly pedantic interpretation of the rules, referee Cuneyt Cakir committed blasphemy against the sport. What other phrase is there to bestow on such a capricious, careless act undertaken by a match official on as big a night as this which at a stroke neutered one team, pre-determined the outcome and destroyed one of the greatest spectacles football has offered for years?

If Cakir so reprehensibly failed to grasp the significance of the occasion, and importance not to let unnecessary refereeing interventions cripple it, others did not. Sir Alex Ferguson as good as admitted in his programme notes that the biggest source of kindling that keeps his hunger burning bright for the game at 71 was the prospect of grand European duels on nights such as this, with “a packed Old Trafford, the floodlights on, the pitch glistening and two of the greatest and romantic clubs in the game about to do battle.” For fifty-six minutes, the game between these two great clubs lived up to every one of those hopes and dreams evoked by Ferguson above, and it would have delighted him that his players were largely responsible for that. From first to fifty-sixth minute, they put in a performance of such warrior-like commitment and panache that it adorned football in a magnificent light before one of its largest watching audiences since the last World Cup. These were players who were deservedly etching their names in history with giant-sized performances to match the greatness of the occasion, and who were doing a sterling job in conveying Manchester United’s name as a vehicle for all that is good and inspiring in the game.

How galling, when such stirring footballing lore was in the midst of being created, that a pint-sized insurance agent with an inflated sense of his own power should step in and decide at the injudicious stroke of a card what would happen instead. How galling that one man should wipe out the greatness of United’s performance from the history books, with no consultation of his linesmen in making his decision, nor admittance of the need not to despoil the occasion unless it was absolutely necessary. Ferguson did not prolong his career to have the night which was promising to bring the sum of his labours together in thrilling apotheosis on the pitch, and rank alongside his finest achievements, ruined in such an unnatural way. United had forced Real into a corner through a stunning array of the most fundamental sporting values – competitiveness, tactical ingenuity, physical stamina, lionheartedness – only for that to be rendered null and void by a decision that corrupted the occasion.

If UEFA think there is no need to offer so much as a platitudinous apology for what was allowed to pass as footballing justice yesterday, they are grossly mistaken. Their democratic policy of choosing referees from a variety of countries with different interpretations of the rules has belittled a competition that is supposed to represent the apex of the game in every sense. Juventus were allowed to grapple and manhandle Celtic’s players at every opportunity at set-pieces in their first leg, in full view of the much-vaunted extra referees; but in last year’s competition, AC Milan were reduced to ten men against Barcelona for doing the same thing. In 2011, Robin van Persie received a second yellow card and his marching orders against Barcelona for an offence as trivial as kicking the ball following the referee’s whistle at a point when Arsenal were ahead in the tie, which meant the referee effectively guaranteed a Barcelona comeback; Chelsea suffered much the same against them last year when John Terry was sent off for an offence that an official more in sync with the occasion could easily have issued him a yellow for. Chelsea were also denied a place in the Champions League final of 2009 by a referee who seemed determined not to award them a single penalty despite the evidence piling up to the contrary in their semi-final. Greater consistency in decisions, more merit-based election of officials and, above all, an appreciation that they are there to protect the spirit of the occasion rather than dictate its outcome with heavy-handed decisions is sorely required if fans are not to begin growing disillusioned with the tournament. For there is no doubt that plenty of neutrals would have woken up this morning feeling that Manchester United had been denied their rightful place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League in the cruellest manner possible, and that the lack of any correction of these grievances will lead to some adopting a resigned, apathetic attitude to this tournament in the future.

Phil Jones’s absence deprives Ferguson of crucial piece in Real jigsaw puzzle

It is difficult to overstate the size of the task Manchester United face at Old Trafford tonight. In the past few weeks the lure of the Champions League has transformed Real Madrid into a collective juggernaut of stunning power and ambition, bulldozing anything and everything in its path. That Manchester United held on during that blitzkrieg first half in the Bernabeu was a minor miracle in itself, as Real battered them from every angle in an attempt to end the tie there and then.

No player better personifies the hunger and danger of a Real side sensing they might be on the cusp of a major breakthrough in their pursuit of European glory than Cristiano Ronaldo. If ever a human being’s face spoke to the torrent of ambition shaping his soul, it was that of Cristiano Ronaldo during the last league meeting with Barcelona. Whenever the camera switched to his face, sitting on the bench, it was brimming with an intensity that made one fear for Barcelona should he come on. When he did, and Gerard Pique laughingly put a hand on his shoulder to chide him for going down softly to win a free kick, Ronaldo never once returned his gaze and elected instead to stare fixedly at the spot of the free kick he was about to take. Nothing would sway him from the task at hand of decimating a footballing giant, and any Manchester United fans hoping that some residual sentiment might compromise his determination to do the same to them better think again. Ronaldo has perfected the art of channelling his unique talents and overwhelming drive into producing perfect performances in the big games, and there must be real concern that United will feel what it’s like to be drowned by that wave of ambition tonight.

They saved themselves from the worst of it in the first leg by producing a heroic performance of tactical discipline and mental fortitude, recovering quickly every time Real pierced through their battle-lines to fight another day. For all the focus on his header, Ronaldo’s performance in that match did not transcend that of offensive teammates such as Angel di Maria and Mesut Ozil – and for that, United have Phil Jones to thank. Just 21, the former Blackburn starlet had already demonstrated his aptitude for successfully containing the outstanding threats of particular individuals against Marouane Fellaini of Everton and Gareth Bale of Tottenham. Yet to repeat the same trick against a turbocharged Ronaldo in the Bernabeu showed a professional maturity beyond his tender years, and pointed the way to a possible route to victory for United in this colossal tie. If Jones could keep Ronaldo relatively quiet at the Bernabeu, and play a pivotal role in restricting Madrid to just one goal, there was reason to believe United could hold firm against them once again at Old Trafford.

Unless Ferguson is being disingenous for tactical reasons, all that has changed with the news of Jones’s injury. Ferguson has lost his trump card, and moreover, has no-one he can rely upon to do such an important job equally well. Jones has proved a worthy successor to Darren Fletcher in that role, but the latter is still absent with a chronic illness that has claimed the best part of two years from his career. Michael Carrick lacks the mobility and speed, and is anyway needed to launch what few counterattacks may fall United’s way. The task will likely fall to a combination of Wayne Rooney, Rafael and Anderson, but the brilliance of Jones’s performance in Spain lay in how he managed to marshal Ronaldo whilst simultaneously providing cover for the rest of United’s defence against the increased threats of di Maria and Ozil. His timing and awareness of when it was safe to leave one part of the pitch to negate a threat in the other – such as bursting into the United penalty area to take the ball away from Ronaldo with a superb last-ditch sliding tackle – was impeccable. Can Anderson really be expected to display the same awareness of all aspects of the threat United face in their half, or will he be so distracted by Ronaldo that he leaves holes open for others to waltz into elsewhere?

It cannot have escaped the notice that United required a full complement of players to be a match for Real in the first leg. To lose such an important cog in their gameplan before the decisive second leg places them at an immediate disadvantage that could well be the difference between going through and falling short. Still, Ferguson has at his disposal a squad that is more tactically flexible than many expected at the start of the season and he used them with all the strategic acumen of a grand chess master to pull off a hugely commendable result in the first leg. Those powers of strategic decision-making in the big matches will be tested to their fullest by Jones’s injury. If Ferguson manages to haul United through two legs against a side that can lay justifiable claim to being the best – and most offensively penetrating – in the world right now it will rank as an achievement to match the finest in his long, illustrious career.

Roberto Martinez brave and right to protect Wigan from becoming a Man United satellite

Roberto Martinez’s willingness to speak up against the big forces at work in the Premier League, and particularly the way they revolve around Manchester United at Old Trafford, was admirably on display once again over the weekend. He aired his view that the referee’s award of a penalty for a dive of the highest order by Danny Welbeck was yet another example of an official being worked over by the Old Trafford occasion. Upon viewing the incident (http://watchhighlightsonline.blogspot.sg/2012/09/video-welbeck-dive-vs-wigan-and-win.html), it is not only striking how easily Welbeck went to ground, but how suddenly the referee was willing to point to the spot after the incident without pausing to consult his fellow officials or take a moment’s thought. His arm shot to his right in an overly eager manner which suggested the occasion had got to him in some way. This kind of thing has happened time and again to teams unlucky enough to come up against Manchester United at Old Trafford: Arsenal were leading 1-0 after 57 minutes in 2009, when Wayne Rooney produced a dive to match Welbeck’s in its crassness (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0UdpLNiD-o) to give United a way back into a match that they eventually won.

There is no suggestion of blatant conspiracy here, but of the latent psychological pressure that Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United exert on the Premier League. Junior British managers such as Sam Allardyce routinely extol the virtues of Sir Alex before matches in which their teams are regularly given a hiding, and there have to be questions asked if the Scot’s reciprocated patronage and praise has the detrimental effect of softening up their ability to infuse their teams with a competitive edge. At the height of the Ferguson-Wenger rivalry and during Arsenal’s strongest years, Arsene Wenger used to insist on maintaining a distance from managerial colleagues who he was required to beat in competition. Similarly, Jose Mourinho makes a point of stoking up antagonism before match-ups with various rivals in order to get the best out of his players. As long as Ferguson keeps putting his arm around men like Allardyce and Mark Hughes, it is hard to believe they can inspire their teams with the fire required to thrive in such difficult ties.

Similarly, the stigma that has built around foreign players diving has benefited Manchester United, that quintessential “British club.” Despite video evidence to the contrary, fans – and referees – are still slow to accept that Rooney and Welbeck are as guilty of diving as any foreign player and fully deserve the close censure from referees that now hounds players like Suarez who have had a reputation tacked onto them by the British press. If that were the case, United might not have won as many as 11 penalties last season (three more than any other team), and Sir Alex’s apparent reputation for “having a quiet word” with players on his roster who dive would be met with greater scepticism.

The brutal truth is that Manchester United, and their steely manager, exercise any advantage available to them to maintain their foot on the throat of the rest and if this means cosying up to British managers to set in chain a weakening of resolve, or subtly reinforcing their reputation as a British club to British referees, they are not averse to doing so. It is notable how Wigan under Roberto Martinez, a foreign manager of principle and poise, have always given United a game and the more credit to them for doing so. The FA can charge him on as many counts as they like for his comments over the weekend, but the point has been made and hopefully its force will be felt by the managers of other smaller teams when they prepare their players to visit Old Trafford.