Who knew that Cristiano Ronaldo would be this bad once again facing his “alma mater”, but still good enough to score two goals? The bigger surprise was Luka Modric entering the match, and actually taking over it after a season of nothing but being criticized for being a terrible failure with Real Madrid.
Sometimes, all you need is the right kind of opportunity. Up until the point Nani got sent off, Manchester United had a game plan that was working perfectly. Danny Welbeck dropped back to cover Xabi Alonso, destroying the ball movement Real Madrid are used to having. The Nani sending off forced Ferguson to move Welbeck to the left wing; this results in Jose Mourinho finally making a clever decision in the two legs – he brought on Luka Modric for Arbeloa, shifted Sami Khedira to the right back position and was left with an extra man in the middle.
Modric, finally getting an opportunity to shine and not in a garbage time kind of match, took it with both hands. It’s easy to forget what a fantastic long range shot he has (Liverpool fans still remember), because he hardly uses it during matches, sticking to short passes and looking for opportunities to deliver through balls, which hasn’t been working out for him too well this season. This time, with Mesut Ozil not having the best of matches in a big game (not for the first time), Modric didn’t miss a beat.
Another player worth mentioning was Gonzalo Higuain, always criticized for his performances in the big matches as well. The Argentine striker moved to the right wing after the entrance of Kaka, while Ronaldo shifted a bit more to the middle, to escape none other than the fearsome Rafael in one of his best defensive performances, which really didn’t matter after the end result was given. The first time Higuain delivered a low cross, not enough players tried to lunge at the dangerous ball, and he signaled, especially Ronaldo, to react quicker next time.
Three minutes after Modric opened the flood gates, Higuain delivered a very similar cross, and this time Cristiano Ronaldo took advantage of poor defending to reach out and give Real Madrid the winning goal; the one that sent him into the quarterfinals.
Somehow, Jose Mourinho has everything back together again. A team that looked torn apart after being taken out of the title race before the Christmas break is suddenly looking like one of the top 2-3 sides in Europe, next to Dortmund and Bayern Munich. Cristiano Ronaldo is scoring and behaving like a grown up boy, while Diego Lopez erased all the worries anyone might have had when Iker Casillas went down and Antonio Adan looked more than ill-equipped to handle the challenged the team faced.
All the tactics and preparations, sometimes, don’t matter. Real Madrid didn’t bring anything new to the Old Trafford for 60 minutes – Patrice Evra handled Angel di Maria, Rafael managed very well with Cristiano Ronaldo. Real Madrid looked like the inferior team. But it took one rather bold decision from a referee to change everything, and remind Jose Mourinho he actually needs to make changes in order to win the match. Luckily for him and the starstruck Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric was the right change at the right time.