It was a night, ultimately, that will go in high on the list of Sir Alex Ferguson's more harrowing moments as Manchester United's manager. His players gave everything to overcome José Mourinho's team and will always be convinced that a night of incredible volume and high drama could have led them to glory rather than the crushing inevitability of Cristiano Ronaldo inflicting the final blow.

Their anger manifested itself at the final whistle when Ferguson could be seen jabbing his finger at the Turkish referee, Cuneyt Cakir, while Rio Ferdinand sarcastically applauded in front of the official's face. The night was always going to be laced with controversy from the moment Cakir showed Nani a red card for embedding his studs into Alvaro Arbeloa's midriff as he went to control a high ball. Ferguson, in his 26 years at the club, has never before delegated a member of staff to face the media in these circumstances but the manager could not bring himself to attend the post-match conference. Mike Phelan described him as distraught and in "no fit state" to address what had happened. "It speaks volumes I am sat here," the assistant manager said.

United had been winning courtesy of Sergio Ramos's own goal early in the second half but the red card, after 56 minutes, will always be remembered as the moment the tie swung in Real Madrid's favour. Mourinho's decision to bring on Luka Modric straight away was a masterstroke and it was then Ronaldo, until that point largely subdued, reminded Old Trafford why he is such a formidable destroyer of defences. Both players scored within three minutes of one another and, however impudent it was for Mourinho to shake Ferguson's hand and set off for the dugout with the final exchanges of stoppage time still to be played, the truth is the game had already been won.

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Once the anger subsides a little United will be able to reflect on some remarkable performances, from Nemanja Vidic at the back to the enduring brilliance of Ryan Giggs on his 1,000th appearance. The night had started with the bombshell of Ferguson leaving out Wayne Rooney but the repercussions of that decision can wait for another day. Even in the last few minutes the 10 men were still desperately going for the goals to get back into the match. It will gall them immensely to think what might have been.

Ferguson was so aggrieved by Nani's dismissal he practically shoved United's kit-man out of the way in his fury to get from the dugout to the touchline. Yet it is not entirely plausible to argue, as Phelan did, that it was the worst decision he had ever witnessed. A referee might respond that a player is asking for trouble by connecting with an opponent's midriff. Nani's boot was definitely raised with painful consequences, accidental or not. That said, there was still palpable shock when the red card was brandished.

Briefly, there was the sense United might be spurred on by a sense of injustice. At one point Ferguson could be seen imploring Old Trafford to crank up the noise. They obliged, too. Yet Modric had already started to become the dominant player in midfield and the space was opening up for Ronaldo. Modric's equaliser was a beauty, rifling his shot in off David de Gea's left-hand post from more than 20 yards, and he was prominently involved in the game's decisive moment, too. It culminated with Ronaldo eluding Rafael da Silva at the far post to turn in Gonzalo Higuaín's misdirected shot and, after that, it would have needed something close to a miracle for the Premier League leaders to reach the quarter-finals.

They had played with structure and tactical discipline when it was even numbers. Danny Welbeck, replacing Rooney, was full of hard running in his position just behind Robin van Persie, sticking close to Xabi Alonso as the first line of supply to Ronaldo. Giggs was superb and, for long spells, Da Silva managed to muzzle the man that Old Trafford's public announcer had ushered in as "the magnificent No7".

For the most part, United let their opponents have the ball, defending in numbers and restricting space. Yet this should not be confused with ploys of conservatism. When they had the chance to break they did so with speed and penetration. Unfortunately for them, Welbeck is still an erratic finisher and Van Persie is going through what, by his lofty standards, equates to a poor spell. Over the two legs they missed far too many chances between them and that, too, should be a serious form of disappointment. When the goal came it was scruffy in the extreme, Ramos jutting out his right boot to turn Nani's cross into his own net.

United will reflect on other chances, such as when Vidic's header shook the post from a first-half corner. Mourinho nominated his goalkeeper, Diego López, as the man of the match and United still created half-a-dozen opportunities to score in their last, desperate push.

Rooney, brought on for the last 17 minutes, put his best chance into the Stretford End and López kept out Ferdinand brilliantly for the pick of his saves. It was a breathless finale in which Ronaldo also hit a post, followed by the recriminations at the final whistle, with one manager unable to bring himself to talk and another contemplating another pulsating Old Trafford victory for his collection.