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CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

The story of a red card and an 'apology' of a goal

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SORRY! Former United old boy Cristiano Ronaldo apologises to the Old Trafford crowd after scoring for Real Madrid

Manchester United can feel aggrieved at Nani's expulsion against Real Madrid, but the issues behind English clubs' Champions League exit could lie deeper.

The shoe is raised dangerously high, and the referee, given only one split-second view of it, red-cards the offending player. Uproar. The emails, the television commentaries, the tweets pour in. Some said Manchester United had been robbed by the Turkish referee's decision to send off its winger, Nani, in the Champions League against Real Madrid earlier this week. Others said the referee, Cuneyt Cakir, had done his duty, gone by the book and punished dangerous play. 

Either way, a game played between two clubs worth more than a billion dollars apiece and televised live around the globe was deemed to have been perverted by a single call from the arbiter.

Nobody knows whether United would have gone on to win the contest. It led at the time of the red card, but it ultimately lost, 2-1, after being reduced to 10 men against 11 for the remaining half-hour at Old Trafford Stadium.

The consequence of United's elimination is that in all probability there will be no English side in the quarterfinal stage of the Champions League. And, barring a footballing miracle when Arsenal attempts to turn around a 3-1 deficit in Munich next week, the prospect of English involvement in the final - to be played in London in May - is finished.

A good thing, too, some within UEFA say. UEFA runs the tournament, and it feared, just a few years ago, that English clubs, bankrolled by oligarchs and oil families and American entrepreneurs, would monopolize the trophy. Indeed, it nearly happened in 2009, when three of four semifinalists were English, or nominally English.

But none of this, one hopes, was on the mind of Cakir when he made his call Tuesday.

His occupation is in insurance, but Cakir has been around the top echelons of soccer for a decade. He would have seen the video of horrendous fouls that Michel D'Hooghe, the Belgian chairman of FIFA's medical committee, showed to leading referees in the build-up to the 2010 World Cup.

D'Hooghe's purpose was to instruct the referees to take a hard line against dangerous fouls that could take players out of the game, even threaten their livelihoods. And together with the leader of the referees' committee, the doctor emphasized that the referee does not have to rule on the intent of the perpetrator, merely on the danger of the action.

In that 2010 final, the English referee Howard Webb saw nothing in a lunge with the foot of the Netherlands'Nigel de Jong that almost caught the head of Spain's Xabi Alonso. On Tuesday, a lesser foul by Nani was interpreted by Cakir as dangerous play.
Was it? We can all look a thousand times at it, from various angles and in real time or frame-by-frame replay. Most people believe that Nani did not even see Real defender Alvaro Arbeloa advancing from behind him like an express train.

Nani has extraordinary dexterity, like a ballet star. He had eyes only for the ball and was attempting to pluck it out of the air above his own shoulder. Arbeloa rushed in, Nani's shoe brushed his chest, and the Spaniard went down.
But in a British TV studio, Roy Keane, the former Man United hard man, played devil's advocate. The referee made the right decision, Keane insisted.

"It is irrelevant if Nani intended to do it, " he said of the impact on Arbeloa. "He should be aware of the players around him. Does he think that he will have 20 yards to himself in a football match?" Keane is one of the few who might have intended harm in his playing days. He wrote in his autobiography that he did maliciously end the career of an opponent whom he stomped on while the player was grounded.

In general, however, the game is clean. Injuries are unintended, but the referees are in the same position as the traffic police who must take off the road a motorist whom they think might endanger others through reckless driving.

All this is why Manchester is out of the Champions League? Alex Ferguson, the United manager and coach through more than a quarter of a century and many more than 1, 000 games, was so incensed by the red card that he refused to speak to anyone after the final whistle. He simply jabbed an accusing finger at the match officials.

Maybe in his state of mind, silence was prudent. But when the master of Old Trafford calms down, he may see that the goal from Luka Modric that equalized the score was exquisite, and the winning goal tapped in by Cristiano Ronaldo could have been prevented either by his keeper David De Gea or his fullback Rafael.

Neither moved with due diligence to a straightforward pass across the goalmouth to where Ronaldo lurked, unmarked. And Ronaldo, almost apologetically, stabbed in the finishing touch against the club that made his career before United sold him to Madrid.
Manchester's players could hardly claim to have been surprised by Ronaldo's match-winning qualities. And the rest of us cannot know for certain that Madrid would not have snatched victory from defeat, regardless of the red card.

That is the nature, in part the attraction, of the sport. Two sides, each filled with expensive talents, but neither close to being the outstanding team that the clubs have fielded in their history.

The bottom line is that United, along with Chelsea and Manchester City, was not good enough to reach the final eight. And the Premier League, for all its hype and its global TV appeal, is not always the very best in Europe. That is likely to come this season from Spain or Germany. Overshadowed by the brouhaha in Manchester, Borussia Dortmund unequivocally put out Shakhtar Donetsk on the same day.

The German side, which has already outplayed Manchester City and Real Madrid this season, sailed on serenely with a headed goal from defender Felipe Santana, a deft one from Mario Gotze and an opportunist finisher from Jakub Blaszczykovski.
Nothing controversial, just a quietly impressive side winning and advancing to the next round.

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