In his day job, the Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir is an insurance agent, a man no doubt given to sober judgements on the arbitrary, irrational mishaps that come out of nowhere to blight the ordinary lives of everyday folk. Last night, it was the clerk from Istanbul who turned into the force that wreaks the havoc.
His decision to send off Nani just before the hour was one of those moments when a referee, faced with a difficult call, panics and turns it into a disaster. It was arguably, under the guidelines given to referees, a booking for "reckless" play but the collision between Nani's raised foot and Alvaro Arbeloa did not merit the red card that Cuneyt brandished from his breast pocket.
Sir Alex Ferguson rushed down from his seat in the United dug-out in order to protest like a man fleeing a burning house, but the damage was already done and by the time he reached the touchline he could see that this season of promise for his side was starting to unravel.
Leading the game through Sergio Ramos' own goal, United were picked off by Jose Mourinho's team, who made their one-man advantage count with devastating effect. In the immediate aftermath of the red card, Ferguson exhorted the Old Trafford crowd to roar their 10 men home, but an hour after the end of the game he was, according to his assistant Mike Phelan, "in no fit state" even to attend the post-match press conference.
For Cuneyt to be sure that Nani's challenge on Arbeloa was a red card he had to be convinced, under the guidelines, that the player had "endangered the safety of an opponent". Those criteria were by no means satisfied and the time that elapsed before making the call, as he shepherded players away, suggested that someone else could have made up his mind over his headset.
But that, as Mourinho later said by way of explanation, is football. United are out the Champions League and suddenly their season feels very different. Ferguson's rage at the decision could have been anticipated but the emotions ascribed to him later by Phelan suggested that this defeat is as profound as any in recent history.
With Barcelona teetering on the brink tonight, and the likes of Chelsea already out, Ferguson no doubt believed that it was his team's destiny to reach the final at Wembley. Certainly he began the night with one of those bold selection decisions, to leave out Wayne Rooney and in doing so completely change the dynamic of his relationship with one of the club's most dominant figures.
Up until Nani's sending off, it was hard to argue that Ferguson had put a foot wrong. He had picked Ryan Giggs on the right side, who had looked sharp against Fabio Coentrao. On the opposite wing, Danny Welbeck caused Madrid problems every time he had the ball. Nemanja Vidic was chosen ahead of Jonny Evans and was arguably the best player on the pitch.
Indeed, when United took the lead, Cristiano Ronaldo was so peripheral to events that you had to wonder whether the out-pouring of love and respect for him at the start of the game from the home fans had knocked him out of his stride. But Ronaldo was there at the back post on 69 minutes to slide in and score from Gonzalo Higuain's cross – the only thing he spared Old Trafford was the celebration.
With only 10 men, United never looked like they believed they could hold out. Mourinho said afterwards that history was full of sides who raised their game on being reduced in numbers by a sending off, but not United. Luka Modric clipped a shot in off David de Gea's left post and then came Ronaldo's goal and, for all the attacks United had at the end, Kaka struck a post late on.
It also helped that in goal, Madrid had another of the game's outstanding performers. Diego Lopez made a number of important saves, including a header from Vidic in injury-time at the end of the game. The last we saw of Ferguson he was jabbing a finger in Cuneyt's direction from the touchline before disappearing down the tunnel for what you imagine must have been the mother of all shouting matches.
His absence at the press conference meant that there was no chance to ask about the Rooney decision which on any other day would have been drama enough. There are two years left on Rooney's contract after this season but he is not here to sit and watch on the nights when the likes of Real Madrid are in town. It can be regarded no other way than a devastating recasting of his place in the pecking order.
Before the break, the best chance fell to United with Vidic heading the ball against the post and Welbeck unable to guide the rebound past Lopez. Although Raphael Varane, the Madrid centre-back was partly culpable for United's goal, he was excellent in controlling the threat of Robin Van Persie who, nonetheless, still made much of the mediocre service he was offered.
Before the end of the first half, Madrid lost Angel di Maria to injury and he was replaced by Kaka. United's gameplan seemed to be working to perfection when, three minutes after extra time they took the lead. Varane lost Nani and it was Sergio Ramos who turned the ball into his own goal after Welbeck managed to get a foot on the cross.
Even in the period of pressure enjoyed by Madrid that followed the goal, United had control. In the moments after Nani's raised foot collided with Arbeloa, Ramos was on the scene to protest to the referee. He was pushed away by Van Persie who, along with Giggs, seemed to be making the point that Nani's eyes had been on the ball.
Both United players seemed to be of the mind that they were lobbying against the possibility of a yellow card. Ramos aside, there was very little said by the Madrid players. When Cuneyt pulled out a red card, it was a stunning moment.
With Rooney, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia on in the closing stages, United threw what they could at Madrid but the red card had thrown them. They had run out of time.
Man of the match Vidic.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee C Cakir (Tur).
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