The controversial dismissal of Nani saw Manchester United lose 2-1 at home to Real Madrid to crash out of the Champions League at the first knockout stage.
United were leading through a Sergio Ramos own-goal when Nani was harshly sent off for a raised boot as he challenged Alvaro Arbeloa for a loose ball, although by the letter of the law Cuneyt Cakir was allowed to show the red.
The hosts, who had drawn 1-1 in Madrid, were shaken by the incident, with Real scoring twice in succession soon afterwards through Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo.
United rallied in the latter stages, as keeper Diego Lopez made some excellent stops from Nemanja Vidic, Robin van Persie, Michael Carrick and substitute Wayne Rooney, but the 10 men were chasing the game and crashed out of Europe.
Madrid boss Jose Mourinho said afterwards that “the best team lost, independent of the red card” and, the ‘Anyone But United’ crew aside, few would disagree.
The selection story was set to be about Ryan Giggs, given a start for his 1000th competitive appearance for club and country.
But it was overshadowed by Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to drop Rooney for tactical reasons, although any surprise soon cooled as replacement Danny Welbeck shone in a first half that saw Real hold more of the ball but United create the better opportunities.
Ronaldo is Real’s star but Xabi Alonso their beating heart; both were shut out of the first 45 minutes, Giggs doubling up with Rafael on their former team-mate while Welbeck helped stifle Alonso’s passing.
United’s best chances fell to Van Persie, who saw a volley blocked, and Vidic, who hit the post from a corner, while Lopez made the first of his good saves to deny Welbeck after weakly batting a Van Persie effort into the England striker’s path.
Real, meanwhile, had made a surprise choice of their own as young defender Raphael Varane performed admirably alongside Ramos.
The stats showed the visitors had as many efforts in the first half, but Real’s were not as clear-cut, the best a Gonzalo Higuain drive that David De Gea did well to block.
The second half saw United take a fortuitous lead as Nani’s cross was diverted past Lopez. Fortuitous because the final touch came off Ramos – although his intervention capped off a period of sustained pressure started by Rafael’s driving run, which also saw Welbeck and Van Persie finishes blocked.
Madrid responded as Madrid do, by launching waves of attacks that United did well to resist: the best effort in the immediate aftermath of the opener was a Higuain cross-shot that needed a touch as it flashed wide.
The complexion of the game changed soon afterwards when, after a loose clearance from Patrice Evra, Nani led with a raised boot on Arbeloa.
It was certainly a booking but Old Trafford erupted in disgust when Turkish referee Cakir showed a straight red to the Portugal winger. It was harsh as he had his eye on the ball, but they are often given in continental competitions.
Real immediately went for the jugular, as Rafael somehow denied Ramos with a goal-line block, while later Vidic hooked an acrobatic clearance from a Sami Khedira effort.
But a moment of individual brilliance pulled Real back on terms as Modric – who had only recently come off the bench – fired a monstrous effort in off the post after shimmying away from Carrick.
It was the Croat’s second Real Madrid goal since joining last summer, but it was unrivalled in importance and quality.
Minutes later, Real were ahead. Earlier in the half a dangerous Higuain ball evaded everyone; this time Ronaldo gambled, arriving at the far post to poke the ball home.
United needed to score twice, and they were down to 10 men. They gave it their best shot and – but for some inspired shot-stopping by Lopez – they would have done it.
Lopez looked shaky in the first half, his hangover from Villarreal’s relegation and failure to settle at Sevilla appearing to continue. But he made outstanding saves from a close-range Carrick header, Van Persie’s sliding finish, and a Rooney volley, the show-stopper an incredible stop from a Vidic power header.
Madrid were hanging on despite their numerical advantage.
As the seconds ticked away the visitors had some joy on the counter, using a Ronaldo half-chance to earn a corner and wind down the seconds.
Mourinho had already made his way down the tunnel, almost apologetically acknowledging his good friend Ferguson, who continued to rail at the ref after the whistle.
Real go through, out of the Liga race and with the Copa del Rey and this trophy the priority, while United turn their attentions to an FA Cup tie with Chelsea and a Premier League that is all-but won.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Diego Lopez (Real Madrid) – After a shaky start the reserve keeper made a string of top saves as United tried in vain to overhaul Madrid.
MANCHESTER UNITED: De Gea 6, Rafael 6, Ferdinand 6, Vidic 7, Evra 6, Carrick 6, Cleverley 6, Nani 5, Welbeck 7, Giggs 7, Van Persie 6; Subs: Valencia N/A, Rooney 7, Young N/A.
REAL MADRID: Diego Lopez 8, Varane 7, Ramos 7, Arbeloa 6, Coentrao 6, Khedira 6, Xabi Alonso 5, Ozil 5, Di Maria N/A, Higuain 7, Cristiano Ronaldo 7; Subs: Pepe 6, Modric 7, Kaka 6.