MANCHESTER, England — Cristiano Ronaldo nudged the ball over the goal line from a sharp angle, then slid past the post and behind the net. As the small Real Madrid section of fans at Old Trafford roared, Ronaldo, who twirled his magic for Manchester United for six seasons before departing for Spain, held up his hands and asked for restraint.
It was, in many ways, surprising. After all, this was Ronaldo’s first game at Old Trafford since he left United, and his goal with about 20 minutes remaining gave Madrid a 2-1 lead on the night, a 3-2 aggregate lead in the two-game series and essentially secured its passage to the Champions League quarterfinals. If ever there was a situation to celebrate, this would seem to be it.
But Ronaldo stayed calm, as if not wanting to rub it in on his former team. And on the sideline, his manager, José Mourinho, who memorably sprinted along the touchline after his team scored an important goal here nine years ago, stayed under control, too. For both, the reticence seemed a tacit acknowledgment of the bizarre and contentious circumstances that led to Real Madrid’s victory.
Even Ronaldo acknowledged that he was not the story of the night. Neither was United Manager Alex Ferguson, who surprisingly left one of his top scorers, Wayne Rooney, out of the starting lineup. Instead, it was Cuneyt Cakir, a Turkish referee, who seized the spotlight in this hotly anticipated Round of 16 showdown with a startling decision to send off Manchester United midfielder Nani in the 56th minute. The decision left United to play the final half-hour with only 10 men.
Afterward, Ferguson was so enraged that he sent his assistant, Mike Phelan, to meet with members of the news media. Phelan laughed when asked if Ferguson had asked Cakir for an explanation. “I don’t think the manager is in any state to speak to the official,” Phelan said with a wan smile, adding that Ferguson was disturbed because he and the United players thought they had played a near-perfect game tactically before the red card.
Mourinho, speaking frankly, agreed. “In my opinion, the best team lost,” he said simply, applauding United’s play and criticizing his players for not responding until late in the match. Without the red card, United might well have won, Mourinho said.
Two years ago, Mourinho and Real Madrid were victimized by a similarly disputed red card when Pepe was sent off in a Champions League semifinal against Barcelona. This decision was equally harsh, Mourinho said, and he acknowledged that Cakir could have given Nani only a yellow card after he lunged in with his foot waist-high in an effort to play the ball away from Álvaro Arbeloa.
After the collision, both players rolled on the ground in apparent pain and Cakir reached for his pocket as he waited for Nani to get up. At that point, it seemed a yellow was coming.
But as United’s trainers helped Nani to his feet, Cakir showed a red. Nani stopped short, staring at the official, who is highly regarded by the European association and worked a semifinal at last year’s European Championships. A group of United players sprinted at Cakir, screaming in anger. Ferguson stormed down to the field from his seat on the bench, shouting and pointing.
Replays showed there was significant contact between Nani’s foot and Arbeloa, but by rule, Cakir had to determine that Nani had endangered the safety of his opponent with the challenge. Simply being reckless should have brought a yellow, which was United’s argument.
“The decision was amazing,” Phelan said, shaking his head.
After Nani departed, the game unraveled quickly for United, which had stymied Real Madrid with a strong defensive effort and led by 1-0 on the night and by 2-1 on aggregate after a Sergio Ramos own-goal early in the second half. Ten minutes after Nani’s red card, though, Luca Modric ripped a curving shot from about 25 yards, banking it into the net off the goal post to tie the score.
Three minutes later, Gonzalo Higuaín whipped in a cross that found Ronaldo, who had received a lengthy ovation from the United fans before the match to acknowledge his return. When he turned the ball into the net, however, the famed stadium went mostly silent as the goal all but ended United’s hope of winning titles in both England and Europe.
“It was an emotional moment for me, for both games, but especially tonight,” Ronaldo said in a television interview of facing his former club.
United fans surely will not feel similarly tongue-tied when it comes to Cakir, though the referee’s decision took the focus off Ferguson’s decision to drop Rooney from his lineup. Ferguson, the United manager since 1986, has a reputation for making unexpected choices, but leaving out Rooney will surely be remembered as one of his most provocative.
Rooney, 27, has been at United since 2004, and although he has been linked to the occasional transfer rumor — there were recent reports that Paris St.-Germain might be interested — Rooney has maintained that he is only interested in playing for the Red Devils. Match nights like these, he has said, are what he most enjoys.
On Tuesday, however, he was a substitute, leaving Robin Van Persie as the lone striker with the veteran Ryan Giggs, 39, who was making his 1,000th professional appearance, supporting him. Danny Welbeck, who scored in the first leg, joined Nani on the wings.
Rooney finally entered in the 73rd minute, and he helped United press for a miracle in the final moments. But Real Madrid goalkeeper Diego López was stout as Los Blancos — who are essentially out of the Spanish league title race — advanced to this tournament’s final eight.
Of course, none of the players’ performances will be remembered as much as that of Cakir, whose decision brought a stream of vitriol from the United players at the final whistle. Rio Ferdinand led a charge of United players who stamped after Cakir, with Ferdinand sarcastically applauding in the official’s face before being led away by his teammates.
Afterward, none of the United players spoke to reporters, reportedly on instructions from management. Ferguson also stayed away, remaining in a dressing room that Phelan described as “very distraught.”
He added: “Playing Madrid with 11 men is very difficult. We feel very disappointed that we ended the game with 10 men.”