This was a good game ruined by a bad referee. A terrible decision by Cuneyt Cakir, sending off Nani for accidentally catching Alvaro Arbeloa, rightly enraged Manchester United players, who surrounded the Turkish official at the end. Good luck to Turkish Airlines renewing that United contract.
Nani's foot was undoubtedly high as he collided with Arbeloa but he was not looking at the Real full-back. There was no malice, no intent.
United were leading through -Sergio Ramos's own goal but Jose Mourinho's side sensed vulnerability. They exploited their numerical advantage well, stretching United, attacking the space and scoring through Luka Modric and Cristiano Ronaldo. It was bitterly frustrating for United's players, for their manager Sir Alex Ferguson and for their fans, who made so much noise for so little reward.
As the United fans had filed into the ground, taking in the remarkable news that Wayne Rooney was starting on the bench, the DJ played Heroes by David Bowie. This was the sort of game that Rooney craved, the chance to perform in front of a packed, raucous audience and his benching for 72 minutes will inevitably trigger speculation about his future.
The noise was deafening, particularly in the second half when Ramos conceded that own goal and then Nani got sent off, prompting Ferguson to gesture to the Stretford End to crank up the volume even more. United supporters did not need much urging as they were understandably furious at Cakir's decision, funnelling their anger into their words. Even when Modric and then Ronaldo scored, United fans still believed, still sang.
It was compelling drama. It was why everyone from the illustrious likes of Roy Hodgson to Pierluigi Collina was in attendance, and an estimated audience of 200??million tuning in. When Ronaldo's name was read out, the United fans gave him an effusive welcome but then booed his early touches. It seemed to faze -Ronaldo for an hour.
Ferguson had devised a reception committee for his former player on the field which worked for almost two thirds of the game. Rafael got tight to Ronaldo. Ryan Giggs, making his 1,000th senior appearance, was also quick to cover back on the right to close down. Giggs, 39 going on 19, was rolling back the years, taking on opponents, sliding into tackles, sometimes with excessive force. When Giggs fouled Fabio Coentrao, -Ronaldo lined up one of his free-kick specials but it crashed into Tom Cleverley in the United wall.
Giggs was superb in the first half. So was Danny Welbeck, who linked well with Robin van Persie and also dropped back to dismantle Xabi Alonso's platform for passing. United soon settled, playing with pace and intelligence, creating chances. Nani was working the left for almost an hour, suddenly lifting in a cross to the far post that Coentrao cleared. Ferguson was seeking to counter-attack quickly, playing Mourinho at his own game.
Van Persie played a clever pass behind Real's defence for Welbeck to chase. The England international did well, holding the ball up, checking back and finding Giggs, whose cross with the outside of his left foot drew gasps of admiration. Van Persie connected right-footed but Ramos was well positioned to clear.
This was what United fans wanted to see, their team really troubling such famous visitors. This was why Cakir's decision over Nani so ruined all this good work. And there was so much to admire from United before that red card. Giggs, embarking on one of those dribbles with which he made his name, then won a corner off Coentrao. Ryan Giggs: bamboozling full-backs since 1991. The Welshman took the kick, met by the muscular Nemanja Vidic, the ball almost snapping the post. Welbeck followed up but was offside. Van Persie then sent Welbeck through but again Ramos intervened. The game was so tight, so absorbing. The fans looked on rapt.
Van Persie was being closely marked by Raphael Varane, the outstanding teenage French centre-half. Van Persie did turn him once in the first half, spinning the youngster and bringing a save from Diego Lopez. Welbeck slightly hurried his response and placed it too close to the keeper. United then appealed for a penalty when Ramos challenged Rafael. Cakir waved play on.
With Ronaldo quiet for a while, Real's threat was intermittent in the first half. Angel Di Maria, a wriggling presence down the right until injured just before the break and replaced by Kaka, was brought down by Patrice Evra, who was cautioned. Ronaldo shifted into the middle, broke into the box but United closed him down.
United's excellence was rewarded early in the second half. Van Persie threatened but the moment seemed to have been lost. Varane collected the ball and could have cleared but dwelled on it, perhaps troubled by the pitch. Nani nicked the ball and crossed towards Welbeck. Ramos was totally distracted by Welbeck and turned the ball past Lopez.
But then controversy entered the building. Arbeloa and Nani collided at speed. Cakir ruled that Nani's foot was high, his studs catching Arbeloa but it was clearly accidental. Real players surrounded Cakir, pressuring him. They got their way. A red card was shown. It was a terrible decision by the Turkish referee, and United were understandably incensed. Ferguson leapt from his seat, motioning to fans to make even more noise.
The half soon worsened. Modric had come on, soon making space for himself 20 yards out, drifting to his right, shaking off Michael Carrick and then unleashing a magnificent shot that hit the post and went in. Lightning struck twice. Gonzalo Higuain crossed from the right and there was Ronaldo scoring but refusing to celebrate. United needed to score twice.
United almost pulled one back when Carrick headed goalwards but Lopez saved. Real's keeper, spreading himself well, then saved from Van Persie while Rooney hooked a close-range volley over.
Committed to attack, United inevitably left space at the back. Ronaldo almost added a second, forcing David de Gea into a low save. Ferguson was juggling his resources, trying to repeat the miracle of the Nou Camp in 1999. Ashley Young came on, Antonio Valencia arrived but they were no Teddy Sheringham or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Real still counter-attacked in between time-wasting. A Kaka shot clipped Carrick and hit the post.