As has been his style in 24 years at Old Trafford, last night Sir Alex Ferguson did not shy away from making the big, bold decisions but as every instinctive gambler knows, you can pay a heavy price for taking those kind of risks.
Ferguson wakes up this morning with a team out of the Champions League and with a star performer in Wayne Rooney whose immediate future is again clouded with uncertainty through injury. This was a familiar old foe in Bayern Munich but, no matter how many times they replay the tape of 1999 at Old Trafford, not every game against the Germans ends with a dramatic winner.
Ferguson raged last night against the "typical Germans", another quotation that is bound to adorn the knock-off T-shirts sold around Old Trafford one day, although it may take a while for the wounds to heal. He was angry about Bayern's contribution to Rafael da Silva's 50th-minute red card for a soft second booking and also the heavy treatment meted out to Rooney's fragile right ankle by Daniel van Buyten.
Casual racism aside, Ferguson had a point. Rafael is a reckless young player but the referee Nicola Rizzoli did not have to yellow card him a second time for an innocuous challenge on Franck Ribéry. Van Buyten was cynical with Rooney. But then this is the Champions League – a uniquely cynical and ruthless environment in which Ferguson has thrived for years.
In choosing to play Rooney, Ferguson will have known that Bayern would pay special attention to his talisman and so it proved. If it felt bad for United fans to watch Rooney spend much of the end of the first half limping then spare a thought for Fabio Capello. The England manager, in Barcelona on Tuesday, had been assured that Rooney would not play last night.
Ferguson said last night that he did not believe that Rooney's ankle injury was sufficiently bad to rule him out beyond Sunday's trip to Blackburn Rovers. Given that this was the same man who said on Tuesday that Rooney had no chance of playing last night, you might want to treat that revelation with care.
From three goals up – two of which were scored within the first seven minutes – United contrived to throw this game away. First when Ivica Olic scored before half-time when Michael Carrick fell over at the crucial moment. Then when Arjen Robben met Ribéry's corner on the volley from the edge of the box for the second goal, a technique once perfected by Paul Scholes.
By then United were down to 10 men, Rooney had been substituted and even the cutting edge of Luis Nani and Antonio Valencia was devoid of ideas. On the post-match phone-in on the supine, in-house MUTV channel the presenter surprised herself by posing the question, "Did Sir Alex get it wrong?" – not something they tend to ask too often in these parts.
As for Rafael, whose red card with the score at 3-1 ushered in a period of Bayern pressure that United could not withstand, he looked like a potential accident all night. In the very first minute he gave the ball away and flew into a challenge. His booking for a foul on Mark van Bommel on 18 minutes was foolish, especially with his team two goals up at the time.
From a position of dominance, United should never have lost this game. Now they find themselves out of the Champions League, second in the race for the Premier League title and wondering whether they might have done some damage to Rooney. They are well capable of retrieving the situation in the league but two defeats in the space of five days have asked serious questions about this United team of 2010.
For only the second time in nine years there will be no English team in the semi-finals of the Champions League. In the case of English football's big four there are separate, unique reasons why each of them is out, but in all cases there is the sense that the pack has caught them in the last 12 months. Certainly, the likes of Ribéry and Robben would command a place in any of the Premier League's traditional big four.
At first United engulfed the Germans in a storm of attacking football. The opening goal on three minutes started at right-back with Rafael. He found Rooney, whose pass invited Darron Gibson to beat the Bayern goalkeeper Hans-Jorg Butt at his near post.
By the time Bayern had picked themselves up they were two goals behind. This time the move started on the left side from where Patrice Evra picked out Antonio Valencia on the right flank. He beat the left-back Holger Badstuber and his low cross was turned in by the inside of Nani's heel.
It was glorious, relentless, vintage United and the wind was only taken out of their sails when Van Buyten clattered Rooney on 21 minutes. Rooney twisted his right foot in the turf. For 10 tense minutes after that he hobbled, avoiding looking over at the bench. Rooney might seem like he is indestructible at times but the springy, eager edge to his stride was gone. Sixteen minutes later, Van Buyten did him again.
Having been utterly demolished, Bayern started to regroup towards the end of the first half. Just when they seemed to have come back Nani's second goal, again made by Valencia on the right wing, seemed to have settled the game. The Portuguese winger finished confidently at the back post.
Then it fell apart. Carrick lost his footing when he tracked Olic into the area and Bayern scored with two minutes of the first half left. Even before the end of the half, Van der Sar had to save from Robben and five minutes after the break Rafael was dismissed.
Off came Rooney, on came John O'Shea, who had not played since 8 November. But it was Bayern who pushed on and Robben's volley was the pick of the evening,s goals. This was a player who turned down United for Chelsea six years ago, in the days when English football enjoyed the pick of the very best young players in Europe.
As of last night, that position among the leaders in European football looks a little less assured. And United, like Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, have reason to wonder if this is simply a blip or the start of a worrying trend.
Manchester United (4-3-3): Van der Sar; R da Silva, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Fletcher, Carrick (Berbatov, 80), Gibson (Giggs, 80); Valencia, Rooney (O'Shea, 55), Nani. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Scholes, Evans, Macheda.
Bayern Munich (4-4-2): Butt; Lahm, Van Buyten, Demichelis, Badstuber; Robben (Altintop, 76), Van Bommel, Schweinsteiger, Ribéry; Müller (Gomez, h-t), Olic (Pranjic, 84). Substitutes not used: Rensing (gk), Klose, Contento, Tymoshchuk.
Referee: N Rizzoli (Italy).
Man-for-man marking, by James Mariner
Van der Sar Might have done better with Olic's strike but unsighted for Robben's volley. 5/10
Rafael First booking came back to haunt him as he was rightly dismissed for kick at Ribéry. 4
Ferdinand Mainly untroubled in the first half but struggled to hold things together after the interval. 6
Vidic Lethargic display and lucky to get away with push on Gomez halfway through the second half. 6
Evra Had work cut out keeping Robben and Ribéry quiet. Combined well with Nani early on. 5
Fletcher Unfussy display from the Scot but effect was limited. 5
Carrick Left exposed for Olic's goal and sloppy with his passing. 6
Gibson Surprising starter, rewarded Ferguson's faith with opener. 6
Valencia Inventive display and fine work on right for Nani's second. 7
Rooney Amazing powers of recovery. Made opener before taken off. 6
Nani Continued fine form with two superb finishes but failure to clinch hat-trick ultimately proved costly. 8
Substitutes O'Shea Struggled 5; Berbatov Ineffectual n/a; Giggs Limited n/a.
Butt At fault for the first goal but made vital save to deny Nani 6/10
Van Buyten 6
Demichelis Positioning and reflexes tested by desperate United 7
Robben A real live wire, perfect technique on his volley 8
Van Bommel 6; Schweinsteiger Pulled the strings as Bayern hunted the winner 7
Olic Constant threat to defenders 7
Substitutes: Gomez 6; Altintop 6; Pranjic n/a
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