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Manchester United Alternate History: Nani’s 2013 red card against Real Madrid

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Lets revisit an excruciating moment to explore what could have been

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Round of 16 - Second Leg - Manchester United v Real Madrid - Old Trafford Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images

As The Busby Babe’s resident historian I feel compelled to start this piece by saying that alternative history is more often than not unproductive, and in some cases harmful. However, since we’re dealing with football and not the memory of the American Civil War, I think we can make an exception here in our quest to kill time.

So, for the guinea pig article in this series, I’ve decided to revisit a moment in Manchester United history that perhaps became more painful just a couple months later than it was in the moment: Nani’s red card against Real Madrid in the 2012/13 Champions League Round of 16 2nd leg.

After a 1-1 draw in the first leg, Manchester United had taken the lead against Real Madrid early in the second half at Old Trafford. They looked the more comfortable side, playing at home against a Third Season José Mourinho side that, despite its world class talent, was already in a state of decay. United had the better chances in the first half, and really should have been a goal up already before Sergio Ramos turned in an own goal in the 48th minute.

United had begun to sit back a bit and absorb pressure, likely hoping to play conservatively with an eye for breakaway chances. In the 56th minute, Nani caught Alvaro Arbeloa with a high boot while tracking a cleared ball, and referee Cuneyt Cakir, after giving it some thought, decided that it was a red card offense. Down a man, United were forced to sit back and absorb the waves of Madrid attacks. Luka Modrić hit a fantastic goal from range 10 minutes after the red card, followed shortly by a Cristiano Ronaldo tap in. Needing to score twice, Sir Alex brought on Wayne Rooney to add more attacking teeth. Despite their best efforts — and there were some good efforts from the 10-man Reds — they fell short in the end.

United would go on to win the Premier League title by 10 points, and Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement after it was confirmed. The rest of the season was a teary, nostalgic farewell tour for the greatest manager to ever do it in any sport ever (a fact confirmed by science). Sir Alex also named David Moyes as his successor, and here we are now wondering whether we’ll ever have a team that looked that capable of winning the Champions League ever again.

But what if Nani hadn’t been sent off?

The Alternate Timeline

Nani gets a yellow card instead. He clearly meant no malice, and had his eye on the ball the whole time. Real Madrid continue to press for an equalizer, but United maintain the confidence that made them the better team up to that point. Sir Alex brings on Wayne Rooney for Danny Welbeck at the 70 minute mark, and soon after Wazza links up with Robin van Persie to get United a comforting two goal lead. Kaka comes on in the dying minutes in hopes of finding a creative spark, and Madrid’s talisman Ronaldo gets on the end of a well placed cross to get one back, but it isn’t enough and United go through.

Overflowing with confidence after knocking off Real Madrid, United continue to tear up the Premier League, winning it on the same timeline in a 3-0 win against Aston Villa. However, though he has made up his mind already, Sir Alex Ferguson dare not tell the squad of his intention to retire with a Treble on the line. With that in mind, he puts extra emphasis on winning the FA Cup, and United overcome Chelsea and City on their way to a final date with Wigan Athletic at Wembley.

Up next in Europe, Turkish side Galatasaray come to town and are dismantled by a resurgent Wayne Rooney, who is getting starting time again as the fixture list gets crowded down the stretch. He scores one for himself before setting up van Persie for a brace. 3-0 is too much for Didier Drogba and co. to overcome in the second leg as they beat a rotated United squad 2-1. After handling business against Galatasaray in the quarter-final, United move on to face underdog Spanish side in Malaga, who barely held on in their own quarter-final with a nervy second leg against Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund. It’s a luck of the draw scenario akin to the 2010/11 run to the final, as the other side of the bracket features Bayern Munich and Barcelona. A nervy away leg in Spain ends 1-1 as United equalize late through a van Persie free kick. Still, it’s an away goal advantage going home as pressure for achieving greatness ramps up.

Back at Old Trafford in the second leg the place is absolutely buzzing. Whispers of Sir Alex’s retirement have begun to leak into the press, but still no word from The Boss, who has his eyes and those of his players set on silverware. “Believe” is written across the crowd, and the players walk out to an electric atmosphere, savoring the moment of one last European night before an uncertain future. In the crowd are the likes of David Beckham, Usain Bolt, Eric Cantona, and even Roy Keane, who was clearly there for more than just a TV gig. Surely on this night they wouldn’t slip up.

They don’t. A tense first half ends with a phenomenal Wayne Rooney goal from outside the area, sending Old Trafford into absolute pandemonium going into the break. The second half is typical, clinical United. Welbeck and van Persie each get on the scoresheet soon after the break, and a fourth is scored late by substitute Chicharito. United win 5-1 on aggregate, and are headed back to Wembley

United are now in search of redemption after letdowns in both 2009 and 2011. Their opponents this time would not be Barcelona, but Bayern Munich, who fell victim to the Red Devils in Sir Alex Ferguson’s first European triumph 14 years earlier. With his retirement all but publicly confirmed, he lets the players in on the news before their cup final dates. Most aren’t surprised by this point, but they feel the extra motivation to get the job done one last time for The Boss.

The FA Cup final turns out to be a bit of a slog, but United get a 2-0 win with goals from Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney in the second half. Roberto Martinez’s Wigan proved to be a tough matchup for United in the past, but there would be no trophy consolation for their relegation to the Championship. With the double in the bag, United returned home for an emotional farewell at Old Trafford before returning to London for a date with destiny.

The End

A couple weeks later, May 25, 2013, Sir Alex Ferguson leads out his beloved Manchester United for the last time at Wembley Stadium. Jupp Heynckes and Bayern Munich, who like in 1999 are also chasing a treble, seem a daunting task. United don’t quite have the same star power they used to, but Robin van Persie in the form of his life and Wayne Rooney, totally re-energized down the stretch of the season and embracing his no. 10 role, still pack quite the punch. They lead the line, flanked by Welbeck and Antonio Valencia ahead of a Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley midfield and the usual suspects in the back four.

Bayern’s lineup isn’t much of a surprise, but “FC Hollywood” is still a formidable power in Germany and the rest of Europe.

Mario Mandžukić had firmly cemented himself as a reliable no. 9 ahead of do-it-all Thomas Muller and wide attackers Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben, who were each having possibly the best seasons of their careers.

Despite having an opportunity to rotate in the league, and a couple weeks off since their last visit to Wembley, United are caught out early. Ribery wastes no time having a go at Rafael, and a quick ball into the box finds Mandžukić, who nearly beats De Gea at the near post. The Bavarians continue to dominate possession in the opening minutes, but Carrick combines well with the wingers and a high-energy Wayne Rooney to prevent dangerous opportunities.

United’s first opportunities are hard to come by, but a chance on the break comes as Rooney sends Valencia down the right with a cross-field pass. The cross doesn’t find anyone, but bounces out to Cleverley who has a go. Neuer punches it over the bar pretty easily, but United have a shot on target. On the ensuing corner Nemanja Vidić nearly glances it in, but sends it just wide and the two sides are scoreless after half an hour. Manchester United’s midfield continues to struggle maintaining possession, and it’s pretty clear that Cleverley probably doesn’t belong on the same pitch as most of Bayern’s players. However, opportunities on the counter seem to favor United.

In the dying minutes of the first half Bayern’s possession is broken on the edge of the area. Arjen Robben attempts to cut in on his left foot from the right wing, as demonstrated by the graphic above and every goal that Robben has ever scored, but his shot is blocked by an alert Rio Ferdinand, and the ball bounces rather nicely for Rooney. He looks up to see Welbeck has more than a step on Jerome Boateng, and boots the ball into the forward’s path. Realizing what is happening, Neuer charges out to meet the ball before Welbeck can get to it, in which case the striker would probably tap it around the keeper for an open net and not try to chip him. The German no. 1 slides in just in time, but the ball doesn’t find safe hands. Instead the ball rolls to the feet of Robin van Persie , who hits it first time at an open net and gives United the lead.

An ecstatic United celebrate yet another memorable RVP moment from an already remarkable season. Meanwhile Neuer and his defenders are furious at each other, but really they’re furious at the prospect of losing a second straight Champions League final to a team that they had been outplaying. After the break the Bavarians are a much more determined side. Their enterprising start pays off a few minutes after the restart as Robben is brought down by Patrice Evra in the box, but it’s deemed not to be a penalty by the referee. The ball bounces to Thomas Muller after a deflected clearance, who calmly converts past De Gea and the sides are level at 55 minutes.

A period of stalemate follows, but United are able to wrestle back some of the possession from the resurgent Germans. This was aided by the arrival of Shinji Kagawa in place of Cleverley. It left United a bit open defensively in midfield, but Kagawa’s experience and calmness was much more comforting for the players around him. The possession leads to an audacious attempt from range by Rooney, whose shot rattles off the upright. Neuer stands motionless as it happens, still clearly a bit shaken by his mistake for the United goal.

With a little under half an hour to go United strike again. A cross from Valencia bounces around the box and is slotted home through the crowd by an attentive Rooney. He’d spent much of the season at odds with Sir Alex, but the excitement of a treble run and some heart-to-hearts about staying at the club after the boss retired helped him rejuvenate his form and once again earn his undroppable status. His second career goal in a Champions League final may not have been as majestic as his first, but it wasn’t in a game that would end up a lost cause either.

Sir Alex, realizing what happened after the first goal, brings on a young and energetic Phil Jones in place of Danny Welbeck to help bolster the defense for the closing stage of the match. A low block disrupts Bayern’s possession, and Jones, whose man-marking abilities made him a decent asset this season, provides some life to a defensive group that is getting some tired legs. Bayern press and press, and are denied at one point by a stunning double save by De Gea.

Around 85 minutes United break out again, with Rooney and Valencia charging down a reeling Dante after most of Bayern’s players went forward for a corner. The Brazilian is able to stay between Valencia and the goal, but a pass laid across to Rooney leaves Neuer stranded. He charges out to make it harder for Rooney, and is able to get a hand to the ball just as it leaves Wazza’s foot to force it back out. Bayern are still trying to recover however, and Michael Carrick is able recover possession and lay it back to Rooney on the edge of the area, who in turn fakes a shot and lays it cleverly to van Persie coming around down his left. Van Persie rockets a shot past Neuer at the near post and sends United’s section into delirium. Sir Alex, Mike Phelan, and the rest of the bench erupt as well as a second treble is guaranteed. With victory secured, Paul Scholes is brought on for Michael Carrick to make his final appearance for Manchester United and secure his 3rd UEFA Champions League winners medal.

Final whistle. Delirium, hugs, tears. Everything you play football for is left on the pitch by United that day, and it spread throughout the stands as Sir Alex addressed the crowd one last time as manager of the greatest club in history.

He begins:

Afterwards the trophy is presented to captain Nemanja Vidić, who brings The Boss up to lift it in his place, marking the end of the most remarkable career in football history in the grandest manner.

The Chosen One

Unbeknownst to the public, as was his way, Sir Alex had identified a successor. Jurgen Klopp, the enthusiastic, attack-minded manager of Borussia Dortmund, was approached by Sir Alex soon after Dortmund’s defeat to Malaga. With the league gone and early exits from both cup competitions, as well as the looming exit of all his best players to (soon-to-be) Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, Klopp understands that his Dortmund team’s days are numbered, and a jump to the Premier League was a logical next step for his career.

There is still an uncertainty about the future, but at least Sir Alex didn’t do anything crazy like naming a career mid-table manager to take over a club like Manchester United. Klopp’s arrival brings excitement. He’s won trophies, he’s managed in Europe, and he has an eye for finding diamonds in the rough. United have their new man. Klopp has the weight of the world’s largest following on his shoulders, and the biggest managerial shoes in history to fill, but the German seems ready to face the challenge head on. It’s time to work.