James Lawton: Manchester United spirit undone by referee Cuneyt Cakir's decision to show Nani red card

Nani and relentless Ryan Giggs took the game to Real Madrid with a splendid optimism

Old Trafford

Sometimes you cannot control your own fate. Sometimes it is taken away from you. So what can you do? If you are a football team filled with the most remarkable competitive instincts, you do what Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United did tonight.

You fight Real Madrid with all your resources of spirit while lesser teams would collapse under the weight of their belief that the red card delivered to Nani, a potential match-winner, was a terrible assault on natural justice.

United are out of Europe and immersed in controversy, some of their own making in the matter of the dropping of Wayne Rooney, but where they remain is among the most durable fighters in all of football.

Even Jose Mourinho admitted the best team lost.

There was fierce and instant analysis of Ferguson's decision to leave Rooney on the bench but sometimes the heart of such an issue is rather more basic than any tactical calculation. It is about a manager's faith in a player's ability to deliver when the stakes and the challenge are at their highest.

Rooney may have produced a tour-de-force on his last outing, but it was inflicted upon Norwich City. For Real, against whom he had no more distinction than that of a willing runner at the Bernabeu, there was only the angst that came with waiting for the chance to play some part in the match that Jose Mourinho said would stop the world. Wayne's World, it was safe to say, had never been quite so drained of the old certainties.

Ferguson held out the possibility that he might come on in the second half and win the match, but no-one in a red shirt seemed about to yield the ground for such an ambition – and certainly not Nani of the outrageous destiny inflicted by Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir.

Nani, along with the man who runs for ever, Ryan Giggs, and the young one, Danny Welbeck, who suggests so often that he might well have precisely the same facility, took the game to Real with a splendid optimism. Nani looked like a man operating with the sense that he was playing as much for his own future as his team, and that such an effort should be so cruelly curtailed was something his team-mates did well to put behind them after Cakir raised his red card. Nani kept his eyes on the ball as he collided with Alvaro Arbeloa and, if he was due anything, it was no more than a yellow card.

He had played with bite and spirit and had a huge part in the moment in which United's time-honoured fighting spirit seemed to have been enshrined by the goal which came when Welbeck turned his cross against Sergio Ramos and into the net.

At that point Mourinho was a parody of the cool manipulator who had guided Real to two straight victories over Barca. He yelled and gesticulated at a team who had shown every sign of shrivelling under the force of United's effort. Angel di Maria left injured, to be replaced by the old superstar Kaka, but neither he nor Mesut Ozil had produced hardly a semblance of their usual creative impact. And where was Ronaldo? He was inhabiting the most alien terrain of near anonymity.

United, served with character at every point of their effort, had won the high ground. Michael Carrick played with solid resolution in the midfield and before the catastrophe of the red card you would have backed Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic to resist a much more familiar Real, even the one which has recently been working hard to re-define the art of counter-attack.

Vidic was, indeed, threatening to be the revelation of the night, a player winning back so much of the authority that had dwindled down the long months of injuries. Near the end he demanded a reflex save from Real goalkeeper, Diego Lopez. Had it not come, we might have had still another example of United's refusal to live comfortably with the idea of defeat, any kind of defeat.

This one, it had to be said, was marked by one central and unshakeable injustice. When Real's goals came from the substitute Luka Modric and, finally, an enlivened Ronaldo, it was hard to calculate the pain and rage of Ferguson. He had brought on Rooney in the hope of something spectacular, but that disappeared quickly enough amid the hollow chanting of Real.

Ferguson had come up with a plan – and a team – and plainly both deserved better. At the very least, they demanded an even test of a quite remarkable spirit.

That was almost casually taken away. The night of glory was, irretrievably, lost to a rage that will surely take some time to pass.

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