By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer
Sir Alex Ferguson will return to his well-worn Old Trafford drawing board with the answer to Manchester United's Champions League puzzle still as elusive as ever.
Ferguson was in magnanimous mood after Real Madrid meticulously picked holes in his latest formula for putting his team at the summit of European football.
Real Madrid were too good, Manchester United not quite good enough.
Ferguson uttered words of comfort to his players, talked of his pride and praised the irresistible Real Madrid attack.
But it was the talk of a loser. And that is the word he hates most.
Manchester United may have been brave winners on a night of magical attacking football, but they will not win the Champions League again until Ferguson finds a cure for comedy defending.
United can be brave and proud - but the fact is they look no nearer winning the Champions League than at any other time since their 1999 win.
Real are the masters at probing a weakness, and at Old Trafford they could almost take their pick.
Coach Vicente del Bosque virtually played without a defence, safe in the knowledge chances would come his side's way.
Rio Ferdinand flouted his billing as the world's most expensive defender and goalkeeper Fabien Barthez was exposed again.
If Ferguson made one plea to his players, it was surely a warning against the slipshod defending they demonstrated at The Bernabeu.
But yet again Real - and in particular the ruthless Ronaldo - were issued with open invitations through gaping defensive gaps as early as the 12th minute.
They are magicians in front of goal, but they were magicians helped by stooges.
In midfield, Roy Keane's lack of mobility meant he was reduced to merely a holding figure - and not a very effective one at that.
The big selection talking point was Ferguson's decision to leave England captain David Beckham on the substitutes' bench and keep faith with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Beckham may have appeared to make a mockery of the move with his two goals and a bright and breezy appearance late on.
But Ferguson got that call right.
The easiest team for any manager to pick is the hindsight XI and Solskjaer deserved his place.
Beckham only came on when Real were already through to the last four, his goals a very small consolation with the fate of the tie decided.
He has been spectacularly ineffective against Roberto Carlos in the past, never more so than in Madrid in the first leg.
Solskjaer has played a vital role in United's league resurgence and is a scorer of vital goals.
He did not repeat the trick at Old Trafford - but it was not for lack of effort.
It was not Ferguson's decision to leave out Beckham that caused United's downfall.
They were undermined by the the brutal truth that Real Madrid were in a different league over two legs.