For a while, though, it looked like he might be upstaged by an English forward who had scored only twice this season, and, briefly, a Portuguese winger so far off being the new Ronaldo that he didn't even make the 18-man squad for United for the first leg of this tie. It was, after all, Nani whose cross was touched by Danny Welbeck onto the ankle of Sergio Ramos, who turned it into his own net for the game's opening goal after 47 minutes.
At that stage, United was in control, and every big decision Sir Alex Ferguson had made was coming off: Welbeck was tracking back to mark Xabi Alonso and reduce his influence (just as Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp told Mario Gotze to do when his side dominated Madrid in the group stage), Ryan Giggs was helping Rafael keep Ronaldo quiet and Nani, well, he did set up the goal.
The game turned on an incident after 55 minutes, when Nani challenged Alvaro Arbeloa for a high ball and, after making contact with the defender's midriff, was shown a straight red card for dangerous play. Cuneyt Cakir's decision did come as a surprise, but replays showed, though his eyes were always on the ball, his foot was high. It was a tough call, and will certainly dominate the post-match analysis.
Madrid and Jose Mourinho were in no mood to let this opportunity pass. Almost straightaway, he brought on Luka Modric for Arbeloa and, after sustained pressure, the Croatian took a pass from Ronaldo and curled a stunning shot from outside the area which went in off the post in the 66th minute. It can't have helped Ferguson's mood that Modric is a player he had wanted to sign from Spurs for the last two summers. Once again, as has happened so often, Mourinho's substitutions paid off.
Madrid had the momentum and three minutes later, another goal. Modric passed to Gonzalo Higuaín, who took a backheel return pass from Mesut Özil and fired in a cross to the far post which Ronaldo slid home. Madrid's star man didn't seem to know whether to laugh or cry: in keeping with the latest trend, he chose not to celebrate against his former side.
United kept on pushing but found Madrid goalkeeper Diego Lopez to be in top form: he kept out a close-range Michael Carrick header, a Robin van Persie shot, and after seeing Wayne Rooney volley over the top from seven yards, dived in injury time to punch out a Nemanja Vidic header.
As usual, much of the narrative around this game focused on Mourinho, who said after the game: "Independent of the [red card] decision, the best team lost, we didn't play well, we didn't deserve to win. The best team lost."
Would the players perform for Mourinho? Would he celebrate like he did as Porto coach at Old Trafford nine years ago? Where will he be coaching next season? This is normally talk that the Portuguese thrives on, so it was significant that he was on his best behavior in the pre-match press conference: no provocations, no wind-ups. The obvious conclusion was that he is eyeing the job to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, but maybe that does Mourinho a disservice: the two men do like each other, and even during his most Macchievellian days at Chelsea, Mourinho never rubbed Ferguson the wrong way. After the red card, the two men could be seen chatting about the decision on the touchline.
Instead, the focus should be on Ferguson and his future. He doesn't like to talk about it, but he acknowledged it before this game.
"People ask me why I don't retire after so many years in the game, but how could anyone with an ounce of passion for football in their soul voluntarily walk away from the opportunity to be involved in this type of occasion?" he wrote. "This is what it is all about -- a packed Old Trafford, the floodlights on, the pitch glistening and two of the greatest and romantic clubs in the game about to do battle."
Last weekend, Ferguson told
The irony of Mourinho knocking his team out of Europe is that it will only strengthen Ferguson's resolve to stay at United to try and win in Europe again. Yes, Ferguson wanted to win league title No. 20 for United to surpass Liverpool's tally of 19 (and that looks all but certain to happen), but with Barcelona no longer the all-conquering force it was in 2009 and 2011 -- during that one-sided Champions League final, the lasting image was of Ferguson watching from the dugout with his hands shaking -- winning the Champions League, a possible treble, looked possible to achieve. Those dreams are now dead. Mourinho has helped knock out United and in so doing, possibly closed off another avenue for his future.
There was an irony about the first goal, which had been coming. Shakhtar had conceded a last-minute equalizer in the first leg from a corner, headed by Mats Hummels, and the fact he was out with flu was a cause for concern for the German side. But it was his replacement, Santana, who broke the deadlock to put Dortmund ahead in the 31st; just before then, Götze had already set up Robert Lewandowski, whose powerful shot was hit straight at Shakhtar goalie Andriy Pyatov.
Dortmund's midfield pairing, Sven Bender and Ilkay Gundogan, was running the show, and the German side's second was a breakaway goal not helped by poor Shakhtar defending. This time it was Lewandowski feeding Götze: his cross found the playmaker in space and, despite two defenders closing in, he was able to prod it home to double the lead in the 37th. It was a measure of Dortmund's control that six different players had shots on goal in that first half.
It was a similar story in the second, albeit without quite so much urgency: when Dortmund did score, it was after Pyatov fumbled Ilkay Gundogan's shot from range and Jakub Blaszczykowski jumped in smartly to make it three in the 59th. Substitute Kevin Grosskreutz almost made it four, but by then the damage had been done. Dortmund may not reach the final, but it is definitely a team to avoid in the quarterfinal drawing March 15.