A reported 215 million people around the world tuned in to watch this clash between Manchester United and Real Madrid and were robbed of the spectacle by a refereeing decision that swung the fate of the game in a devastating arc towards the team from Spain.
The debate about the red card itself will no doubt rage for some time, with United diehards apoplectic and the legions of United haters backing the referee to the hilt, but the critical point is that the referee robbed us football fans of the spectacle of seeing two of the great teams duking it out on a level playing field. The game was perfectly positioned for a second half of epic proportions, but despite the efforts of both sides, the true football fans of the world will look back and wonder what could have been, had referee Cuneyt Cakir - a man United fans may observe to have two too many letters in his first name - plucked a different card from his pocket.
After 56 minutes, United were 1-0 up on the night and the ball was cleared from the United penalty box. Nani's eyes never left the ball as it dropped over his head, his leg outstretched to bring it under his control. Arbeloa had approached from deep and went to control the ball with his chest and the two collided. The contact was clearly unintentional and, had the card been yellow, I honestly don't think that either side would have had any complaints, and the incident would have more than likely been forgotten within five minutes of play resuming. Make no mistake, this was not anything like the challenge that Nigel De Jong made on Xabi Alonso in the 2010 World Cup final - for which the Dutchman wrongly received only yellow.
Looking at the laws of the game, one can only assume that the Turkish referee's decision is based upon the view that Nani had used "excessive force" and been guilty of "endangering the safety of an opponent". If this is indeed the case, one might question the decision not to award Manchester United a penalty and send off Real goalkeeper Diego López for a first half challenge on Nemanja Vidic - something seemingly forgotten by most match reporters - for which the referee failed to award a foul, let alone offer up a card. Vidic went up for a header in the Madrid box and was punched in the side of the head by the 'keeper as he attempted to clear the ball. The Madrid player made no contact with the ball and left the United defender in a heap on the floor.
If Nani's attempts to control the ball are deemed to be worthy of a free kick and a red card, then consistency has to be shown. Punching a player who is directly in your line of sight, whether intentionally or not, must be considered to be as dangerous, if not more so, than a collision between two players in which the 'perpetrator' has no idea as to the proximity of his opponent. It is this variable interpretation of the law that rightly earns the ire of football fans.
Up until that point, United had gained a slight upper hand thanks to a positive work rate and superb positional play. The back four played magnificently and Rafael, a man who had a torrid first half in the first leg, really stepped up to the plate in the return leg. Danny Welbeck must also be congratulated for his movement and ability to hold up the ball so well, but the key figures for United were in Midfield. Carrick and Cleverly as holding midfielders were excellent throughout, both in defensive support and in their distribution, while Nani and in particular the superb Ryan Giggs provided frequent outlets for forward play while always paying heed to their defensive duties.
Madrid had largely looked flat, with the early injury to Di Maria perhaps being of some significance after his excellent performance in the first leg. Ronaldo looked almost overawed by his return to Old Trafford and they were largely limited to shots from long range by a sturdy United display. The sending off and introduction of Modric swiftly changed the impetus of the tie.
One can only speculate over what may have happened had 22 men stayed on the pitch last night and, despite Jose Mourinho’s assertion that "the best team lost”, I think that the man advantage meant that United were never likely to progress. Up until that point though, United had the tie exactly where they wanted and Madrid’s inevitable pressure as they attempted to regain a foothold in the match would have lent United the opportunity to produce the kind of exhilarating counter attacking football that they produce so effectively.
Sadly it was not to be. As a United fan I was gutted that we went out in such a way. I honestly wouldn’t have been so bothered if we had gone out to a superb Madrid performance. But as a football fan, I can only feel that the potential game of the season has been taken away from us by what will surely be one of the most hotly debated refereeing decisions you will see this year.