“The best team lost”, is the quote doing the rounds after Real Madrid’s 1-2 win at Old Trafford. It’s widely accepted that this rare show of humility from Jose Mourinho is true, but as Manchester United know better than most, you need to be more than simply “the best team” in a competition if you want to win it.
Mourinho’s modesty is being seen as an indication that this great wandering winner will one day want to settle down at Old Trafford. Alex Ferguson has singled out the Portuguese in the past as one of the few managers whom he thinks has the quality to continue the work he’s done at Manchester United.
Mourinho withdrew some of his usual competitiveness during the build-up to the game, and was almost unrecognisably humble in his post match comments. It was a night where Real’s showmen almost gave too much respect to their opponents, with former Manchester United player Cristiano Ronaldo also admitting that no occasion has ever affected him like this one did.
“The atmosphere overwhelmed me for the first time in my career. I didn’t feel comfortable.”
However, despite Mourinho’s laid back approach during the game as he sat with his chin perched on the wall in front of the away dugout, he ensured that even though the best team may have lost, the best manager won.
Fifty odd minutes into the game Mourinho had French striker Karim Benzema stripped and ready to come into the fray, presumably to replace defensive midfielder Khedira or one of his ineffective attackers such as Ozil, as Real looked to get the one away goal they desperately needed to level the tie.
Then, Manchester United’s Portuguese winger Luis Nani was sent off for putting his studs into Alvaro Aberloa. The act was unintentional as Nani was merely looking to control the ball in mid air, but his follow through saw his boot thrust high into Arbeloa’s torso. It was considered by referee Cuneyt Cakir to be dangerous enough to warrant the red card.
Alex Ferguson reacted by getting up of the bench as quickly as his advancing years would allow him, pushing his staff out of the way, and making his way down the steps from the bench to the touchline where he proceeded to berate the fourth official for the foreseeable future. Indeed, the fourth official would have gone to sleep that night with the angry Scot’s words still ringing in his ears!
Jose Mourinho reacted rationally, and tactically. Of course, this is easier when you’re on the beneficial end of one of these decisions, but it would also have been easy for Mourinho to get involved in the furore surrounding the decision which dared to go against Manchester United at Old Trafford, and humour Alex Ferguson with future career plans in mind. Instead he managed to change the game, then humour Ferguson afterwards.
Benzema was immediately told to sit back down, and Luka Modric was summoned to the fore to replace Alvaro Arbeloa, who would have been at least mentally, if not physically wounded by this incident and the frenzy which followed it.
Mourinho reacted instantly. Something clicked in his head and he became animated on the touchline for the first time in the game, sending Modric on to do the job which Mesut Ozil should probably have been doing prior to this when the game was eleven a side.
Ozil was shunted out to the left, Ronaldo pushed forward to support Higuain, and Modric took up a position in the hole where he could use his playmaking and attacking ability to the greatest effect.
Within fifteen minutes Real had scored the two goals they needed, with Modric scoring one of the goals of the competition (which seems to have gone un-noticed amongst the massive fallout from the red card incident), and Ronaldo stealing in at the back post ahead of the otherwise impressive Rafael, to put in Higuain’s cross. The tactics had worked perfectly.
Manchester United had looked so solid at the back, and Real Madrid so impotent in creating chances (despite a dubious disallowed goal in the first half), that it always looked like the first goal would have to come from distance or be something special. Modric provided that, and the rearrangement up front provided the second goal.
It was only after these goals that Alex Ferguson made his move, far too late after the game changing incident in the 56th minute. The late introduction of Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young made the game more entertaining for the neutral, but it looked too little too late even for a team so renowned for its late miraculous come backs in games.
The thing which clicked in Mourinho’s mind was tactical, and concerned with how he could win the game. The thing which clicked in Ferguson’s mind was emotional, and concerned with somehow trying to change a decision which even he had no control over. His astute tactical set up for what he expected from the game, wasn’t matched when the unexpected happened. Had he responded earlier he could have pulled off one of the biggest victories of his long and illustrious career.