Adam Bate wonders where the high-profile omission of Wayne Rooney leaves the Manchester United forward.
The parallels with David Beckham were too delicious to ignore. The Times
spoke of "eerie similarities" while for the Independent
it was a "poignant" comparison. It was all there. The high-profile axing against the same opposition in the very same competition. Even the celebrity wife was right on cue to risk Sir Alex Ferguson's ire. "Can't believe Wayne Rooney isn't starting tonight!" came the tweet from Coleen.
It's fair to assume the healthy ego of the self-styled 'Big Man' will have been pricked. This was a game some were billing as the biggest at Old Trafford for five years. And the one-time talisman of the team was excluded from the starting line-up. The conclusion is a tempting one - Rooney's time at Old Trafford, like Beckham's back in 2003, is almost up. As former United skipper Roy Keane put it: "Wayne might be quite selfish about it and look at it and say the writing's on the wall for him."
That United lost the game in front of their own fans
would ordinarily have sparked furious debate about the team selection with Ferguson being questioned from all sides. But his counterpart at Real Madrid swiftly attempted to quash such talk
. "Sir Alex has won the right for every decision to be correct and never have a question mark against them," said Jose Mourinho. "He is the best. He is the top. You are nobody to put a question like that. I am nobody. He did a great job."
In truth, it wasn't just the game-changing sending off of Nani that left the question redundant. It was the fact that the home side's stand-out performers were Danny Welbeck and Ryan Giggs - arguably the two chief beneficiaries of Rooney's omission.
Giggs belied his years to produce a tireless display, foraging down the right far more impressively than Rooney had done in the Bernabeu three weeks earlier
. The 39-year-old showed remarkable pace and enthusiasm in tracking back with Fabio Coentrao, Real's marauding left-back. The fact that Giggs even overstepped the mark with two early challenges suggested that Ferguson had stressed the importance of stopping the supply from the left.
The contrast with Rooney's efforts was stark. It was billed as a thankless task at the time and that proved to be the case in a literal sense. It seems Ferguson was unimpressed with the way his star's positional play contributed to many of Real's best opportunities
that night. For his part, perhaps Rooney would have been eyeing a central role given home advantage this time around but it was Welbeck who took his favoured No.10 role. And the youngster shone.
There are those who retain lingering doubts regarding the leggy 22-year-old forward. His finishing lacks conviction and the passing can appear less than crisp at times. But coaches tend not to dwell on such matters when a player combines pace, physique and intelligence in the manner of Welbeck. Here the England international was given a dual role - keeping Xabi Alonso in his sights to hamper Real building from deep and then springing in support of Robin van Persie. He did both admirably well.
Nani also did the job that Ferguson would have wanted - for an hour at least. It was the Portuguese winger who was bright enough to rob the otherwise impeccable Raphael Varane in order to set up the opening goal. And when Rooney did venture onto the field, he struggled to adjust to the astonishing pace of the contest, lacking the spark of some of his team-mates. In essence, Ferguson was vindicated even in defeat.
And that overriding sensation must represent the worst of all worlds for Rooney. His team are out of the competition so there will be no redemption further down the line; and yet, people are not even aching to ask the 'What if' question. Even Beckham was afforded that luxury when his two late goals almost sparked an improbably comeback a decade ago.
Instead Rooney's biggest supporters might be persuaded by the notion that this was a classic Ferguson slap-down. Beckham was perceived to have become distracted by off-field matters, while the exits of Jaap Stam and Ruud van Nistelrooy still echo at Old Trafford. Even Gary Neville tells the story of how he was forced to travel to consecutive away games as a non-playing squad member in his prime after making the mistake of swearing at Ferguson.
The view that this is a statement designed to gee-up Rooney is given some credence by the suggestions of the United boss that the 27-year-old's lack of fitness was central to the decision. However, Ferguson's claim that Rooney "needs a game or two" looks dubious given his 90 minutes at the weekend. As a result, perhaps some will mischievously prefer to see it as the activation of a long-held grudge dating back to Rooney's fudged transfer request back in 2010?
But all these theories are implausible when stacked up against the most likely explanation. Ferguson's idea of his first-eleven is a fluid thing and maybe even an anachronism: Wayne Rooney simply wasn't the man for this big occasion. United needed the right combination of discipline and pace from his attacking midfield trio in the hope that they could be compact in defence but a significant threat going forward.
It's one of the few decisions that Ferguson won't be ruing the morning after the night before. Whether his erstwhile star striker sees it quite that way is another matter entirely.