Sir Alex Ferguson was last night described as "distraught" and in no fit state even to discuss the Turkish referee's dismissal of Luis Nani, which contributed to Manchester United's 2-1 Champions League defeat to Real Madrid.
The referee, insurance agent Cuneyt Cakir, who infuriated Jose Mourinho by declaring a winning Real Madrid goal offside against Borussia Dortmund in last season's group stage, was a travesty, Ferguson feels. By sending his assistant Mike Phelan to explain the defeat, he avoided a repeat of his "typical Germans" attack on Bayern Munich after Rafael da Silva's dismissal in United's quarter final defeat, three years ago.
Experienced Premier League officials agreed late last night that the 55th minute dismissal of Nani, for a high challenge on Alvaro Arbeloa was harsh. It was widely considered to be a "reckless" challenge, which should have triggered a yellow, and but was not violent conduct which threatened to endanger the former Liverpool full-back's safety, which would have brought a mandatory red.
The Real Madrid coach, Jose Mourinho, argued that Nani had made "quite strong contact" on Arbeloa and insisted that Ferguson was cordial and had assured him that he felt Real had conducted themselves well. "When it's about players who are feigning injury it's one thing but Arbeloa was not," Mourinho said. Yet Arbeloa did appear to make the most of the challenge, which replays showed caught the underside of his arm rather than his ribs, as he implied.
Phelan described the referee's decision – the worst of his United career, he agreed – as "amazing" and "harsh, almost incredible." Asked if it raised questions about the competence of the referee, the assistant manager replied: "That's for you to write about and clear up." Ferguson left the pitch jabbing a finger at the official, a gesture he also employed after the Portuguese player was dismissed. Mourinho argued that he had been on the receiving end of this kind of justice often enough, with Pepe's dismissal for Real in the second leg of the 2011 Champions League semi-final against Barcelona a decision which still rankles.
But Mourinho justifiably pointed to the way he had altered the shape of his own side, introducing match-winner Luka Modric to lethal effect on a night when Cristiano Ronaldo could not overcome the huge expectations at stadium where the announcer proclaimed the "return of the Magnificent 7" when his name was read out. "I want to be honest, and to be honest is to say that in my opinion the best team lost," Mourinho declared. "When we were against ten we played very well for 10 minutes," Mourinho said. "We created new problems, with Luka and Kaka behind [Gonzalo] Higuain."
Ferguson's own bold decision was the omission of Wayne Rooney from his starting line-up, a move which asks searching questions about the striker's future and left his wife, Coleen, publicly questioning the United manager. "Can't believe @WayneRooney isn't starting tonight!!!" she tweeted.
Mourinho said of Rooney that Ferguson's track record made him beyond questioning. "I think Sir Alex won the right to have every decision acknowledged as correct and every decision should have no question mark," he said. "He is the best. He has created history. You are nobody and I am nobody to put a question mark in front."
Of Ronaldo's relatively quiet night, Mourinho reflected: "Mentally it was not easy for Ronaldo."
Phelan said Ferguson had not sought a post-match explanation from Cakir. "I don't think the manager is in any fit state to talk to the referee about the decision," he said. "I think it speaks volumes that I'm sitting here speaking to you and not the manager of this fantastic football club. We all witnessed a decision which seemed harsh, almost incredible at that moment in the game."