With the rumours swirling that Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the game’s greatest ever players, could be set to return to Old Trafford, we take a look at how he developed into the greatest player in the world at Manchester United.
I will be beautiful once again
Roma arrived at Old Trafford in the early weeks of the 2007/8 season hoping to avoid a repeat of their previous encounter – on that night, Manchester United had won 7-1, a match where Wayne Rooney, and in particular Cristiano Ronaldo, announced themselves, finally, as major European talents. It had been a strong season for Ronaldo who had developed physically and mentally – after looking like he might have to leave United following the 2006 World Cup, he had instead remained, and where once he had been accused of going to ground too lightly, he was robust enough to deal with the challenges. Michael Ball’s stud imprint on his chest said as much.
Ronaldo revealed that in that 7-1 game, he had been begged to stop attacking. “I hear some comments from opposing players that bring a smile to my face,” Ronaldo said. “It happened during the last United-Roma match when we were already winning 6-0. ‘Don’t do any more dribbling,’ said one of them, almost begging. ‘You are already winning by six!’”
The Daily Star speculated that the identity of that player was Christian Panucci, who had said United generated a ‘totally unjust atmosphere’ after the first leg game in Italy when the Italian riot police attacked United supporters. Sir Alex laughed Panucci’s comments off. “Can we start again and maybe have another 7-1?” he joked. “I can’t believe a player of Panucci’s experience was affected by that because he has played for Real Madrid and AC Milan and Italy. Players like him and Francesco Totti, they are experienced players. But it’s a good story.”
In the end, Vidic made it but Hargreaves didn’t, while Kuszczak kept his place in goal. Ferguson’s prediction was right; this was a far tougher Roma team who did play as if they had something to prove. Their captain Francesco Totti had a lively first half, while Ronaldo and Rooney showed flashes of quality, but nothing quite like the devastating penetration they had displayed in their last meeting. It took patience for just one moment of quality — an approach which had paid dividends for United so far this season — to provide the breakthrough, and it came with around two-thirds of the game gone for not the first time this campaign. The move, when it came, was perfectly executed, and Nani provided the assist for Rooney; his finish was exceptional.
Just before the goal, Ferguson had brought on Carlos Tevez for Louis Saha and after the goal brought off Rooney and Nani, but a nervy end to the game was made that much more uncomfortable when Ferguson’s side were forced to play out with ten men. Mirko Vucinic, the Roma forward, somehow escaped unpunished for his flailing elbow which caught Ronaldo and left him with a nasty cut above the eye. United held on for their sixth 1-0 win of the season; they would win by that same scoreline only six more times for the remainder of the campaign.
“I was relieved. I think it would have been unfair but then football can be unfair,” Ferguson said, referring to Roma’s missed opportunities. “I think we deserved that bit of luck because we played with good control, good football, good tactical awareness, so I was pleased with the performance… it’s been difficult for Wayne because he’s had an injury and he’s just trying to find his true form. It’s only his fourth match back and it is always difficult. But we are beginning to play some better football and find some rhythm and I have no worries about Wayne.”
One thing which had been worrying Ferguson was the treatment of his number seven; this time, however, he kept oddly quiet, when one might have thought he had plenty of ammunition to have had his point well and truly proven. “I haven’t seen the incident on TV but Cristiano thought it was deliberate,” he said. “It’s a shame because, on the whole, it was a game played in great spirit and refereed very well. Both sets of players deserve a tremendous amount of credit.”
Ronaldo was not concerned about the incident and instead looked forward, setting himself a target of beating his previous season’s goal tally of 23. “Twenty-three goals is a lot for a winger,” he admitted. “To score that number made it a special season indeed. But I believe in myself. I feel I can do better, or at least equal what I did last year and I will be trying hard to do exactly that.”
Ronaldo paid tribute to his boss. “I am at this club because of Sir Alex Ferguson,” he said. “He is a fantastic coach and a good person. When you do bad things, he still wants to kill you but that is a good thing for a manager. He is the one who gives me the confidence to play. I have enjoyed playing for this club for five years and I want to keep going like that. Sometimes in the past I have thought about other clubs but I took a decision to stay because this is the right place for me. It is not just about the club. It is the people, the players and the supporters. You have everything here. I love playing for this club and I want to stay for many years. I think I’m at the right club with the right people. In the past I thought about other clubs, but my agent and I decided that this is the best place for me to be. No-one knows the future but only when the club says they don’t want me will I leave.”
The winger had emerged as the top talent at the club after years of doubts over his consistency but even his status as the best player in the country did not make him immune to the hairdryer. “If you do bad things the boss will still kill you,” he said. “This is normal because he is a fantastic coach and a warm person, from whom I have learned a lot. It has also helped me to have had experienced players like Giggs and Scholes, who have helped me a lot. When I came here, at 18, I was a bit nervous. When I played my first game, in front of 65,000 people, I was shaking. But that is good. It makes you a better player.
“My dream now is to win the Champions League and I think we have the squad capable of doing that this season. I have never won it. We have the team, the players, so why not this season? It was a big disappointment to lose in the semi-finals to AC Milan last season. That hurt. But when you lose you learn some important things. We are more mature as team now, we know how to win the Champions League this time around.”
On his eye injury, Ronaldo joked: “I don’t want to stay looking like this, but it will only be four of five days and I will be beautiful once again! I don’t care what they do. They will not stop me playing. No, never. My manager does a great job in trying to protect me, now it is up to the rest of the players — my opponents — to listen.”
In March, the Red Devils had to negotiate a home game against Bolton. Ronaldo had already scored a hatful of goals and was destined to win the domestic player of the year awards. How much further he would go would be determined by United’s own success.
On the same night, Tottenham and Chelsea played out a thrilling 4-4 draw; it meant that United could put some clear daylight between themselves and the chasing pack by winning against Bolton. After 29 games, they were level with Arsenal on 67 points and top by virtue of a superior goal difference (to the tune of eight goals) and United could also boast a game in hand. Chelsea’s draw put them two points behind in third, having played thirty games. Sir Alex Ferguson was hopeful that his side would be back in the goals having scored just twice in the last three games; the real story was in the profligacy.
“The missed chances are becoming a concern,” admitted the United boss. “We were really charitable against Portsmouth and against Derby. It’s a sticky spell in front of goal that we must get over. Against Derby, we made it hard for ourselves because we missed so many chances. It turned into a real battle and it shouldn’t have been. There are important games coming up. We want to start taking our chances. We want to drive home our advantage at the top of the league by winning our game in hand. It’s encouraging that we’re making so many chances.Perhaps the forwards just need to relax a little in front of goal. Then the goals will come. If we perform well and take our chances then we’ll win the match. But it’s important we respect our opponents. Some of our football recently has been terrific and there’s good penetration in the team.”
Van der Sar was not selected as Fergie rotated his squad ahead of the Liverpool game and chose not to rush back the Dutchman; the United boss fielded an unfamiliar defence of Hargreaves, Pique, Vidic and O’Shea. The first half, though, was reassuringly familiar; two early Ronaldo goals which settled this game by the 20th minute. From a corner, Carlos Tevez tried and failed to score with an overhead kick. Bolton defender Matt Taylor tried to clear but it only went as far as Ronaldo, who finished well from 15 yards.
All of the meaningful action in this game took place in the first quarter; Bolton had their best chance of an equaliser in the 18th minute when Kevin Davies forced Kuszczak into a smart save at his near post.
From that attack, United went forward and won a free kick. Ronaldo’s record so far this season had been exceptional but this seemed a bit too far out even for him; thirty five yards away from goal, and central, it didn’t seem to favour the taker, but then we are not talking about any ordinary player. Ronaldo’s ambitious effort was just too good for Al Habsi in the Bolton goal and the result was settled. More goals could have followed as United seemed to rediscover their swagger, but there was always the sense that the home side were playing in second gear (save for Ronaldo, of course, whose insatiable appetite for goals meant he relentlessly went in search of a hat-trick) with the Liverpool game coming up.
It told you everything you need to know about a player who had already broken an old club record that night; the free-kick meant he had now surpassed George Best’s goal record for a winger.
Ferguson found Aston Villa to be amenable, but to be fair, most teams would have struggled to live with United in such flying form. Ronaldo, Rooney and Brown all went close with early efforts before a Ryan Giggs corner in the 17th minute found its way to Ronaldo via a poor defensive header. Ronaldo couldn’t have been expecting the error but his anticipation was absolutely incredible; he improvised and flicked the ball with his right heel. It was so brilliant that the Villa players were stunned and couldn’t react quickly enough to stop the ten yard effort from going in.
It spoke volumes that Ronaldo ran off celebrating like a ten-year-old, instead of the arrogant shrug which usually accompanied his goals; he’d surprised even himself.
Ronaldo was creator for the second goal in the 33rd minute; after being played in by Scholes on the right hand side, Ronaldo’s floated cross was headed in at the back post by Carlos Tevez.
Villa’s problems were not just with Ronaldo. The supply line to the forwards was plentiful with Scholes, Carrick and Giggs all in menacing form; the latter combined with Tevez to create a chance for Wayne Rooney, but the England striker fired agonisingly wide. His barren spell at Old Trafford had clearly become noticed by the United players and so the second half turned into an exercise to get him back among the goals.
They didn’t have to wait too long; four minutes after his miss, he was again the beneficiary of some thrilling football; Scholes and Giggs exchanged passes before playing the ball to Ronaldo. In the kind of move that only replays can do justice, the winger extravagantly flicked with his heel to play in Rooney again; there was no way the Portuguese player could reasonably have known where his strike partner was, with only the assumption that their combinations had become almost telepathic to explain how remarkable the move was. Rooney’s finish from here wasn’t straightforward nor was it of a man lacking in confidence, as he rounded Villa goalkeeper Scott Carson, but you sensed there was an element of wanting to make sure with the way he lashed the ball into the empty net. It was the perfect goal to summarise all which was good about United’s fantastic season.
The home side’s fourth was also pleasing to watch; the beleaguered Villa defence could only get the ball away as far as Giggs, who played in Tevez on the right hand side of the box. Tevez played it to Ronaldo central, and Ronaldo heard the call from Rooney on the left so stabbed the ball towards him. Rooney finished first time at the near post to complete the rout.
The Scouse striker was thrilled to be part of such a wonderful footballing side. “I used to love watching Brazil when I was growing up,” he said after the game, “and the football we are playing is similar to the football Brazil play. The movement and passing is brilliant and I love playing for this team. It’s just a pleasure to play football like this. It’s why you want to be a footballer.” Rooney admitted the goalless run had concerned him. “It has frustrated me a bit, and people have been ringing me up to ask what’s going on,” he admitted. “When I missed the first chance I wondered if I would ever score again. But I know I’ve been playing well and the most important thing is that the team has been winning.”
Rooney was quick to praise Ronaldo, who had three assists to his name. “It’s a pleasure to play with him and quite rightly he’s labelled the best player in the world,” said Rooney. “I only fully appreciated his goal when I saw it again on television at half-time. It was brilliant. He was probably the only player on the pitch who could have done that. And knowing the player he is, he probably meant the flick for my first goal as well. I don’t think people appreciate the skill and the confidence he has. He’s a pleasure to play with. And the fans must love coming here every week to see him.”
Martin O’Neill had expected a tough game but had to give credit after seeing the way the opponents had played. “If you could ever try to set the benchmark, that’s it,” he conceded. “We came up against a team on top of their game; we have to admit they were splendid.”
Surprisingly, despite the accolades being showered on Ronaldo, there were still reservations from a selection of pundits and football writers about the winger. His record in big games had been questioned and despite his status as joint-top scorer in the Champions League, there were doubts that he would be able to perform when it really mattered. His manager rubbished that idea.
“He has not had as much Champions League football as some of the top players in Europe,” said Ferguson, “but he has only just turned 23 and with the maturity he will gain over the next two or three years I don’t feel that question will be asked again. We’ve seen the development in every part of his game in domestic football and the more he plays European football the more we will see his qualities. I’m delighted we are bringing a player back here, a year on, with an incredible improvement in his goalscoring performances.”
It could be fairly suggested that Ronaldo’s performance against Roma in the 7-1 was the one which announced to the world how frightening he could be when on top form; equally, it could and should be noted that his display in the first leg of this quarter final showed us a different and just as impressive side.
This wasn’t a secret to United supporters; lost amidst the complaints about the heavy-handed treatment being dished out to him was the fact that Ronaldo was a remarkably brave player who, even if he went down easily, was never one to shirk a challenge or back away from physically imposing himself. In a game against Manchester City at the back end of the previous season, Ronaldo had been fouled and then stamped on by Michael Ball in the first half; it was a nasty, nasty moment which left an ugly looking bruise. Ronaldo was undeterred and sought to make Ball’s life a misery for the rest of the game, teasing him into making another rash challenge before half time and conceding a penalty. He then stepped up to score the spot-kick, putting United on the brink of the title.
It was a similar brand of bravery which made the difference in Rome. The Italian side were almost unapologetic in their early roughhousing of the player, who was being fielded up front alongside Rooney and Park. It was a similarly rough challenge (though it was just within the confines of the laws of the game) from Marco Vucinic on Nemanja Vidic which saw the Serbian replaced by O’Shea in the 34th minute. Memories of Paolo Montero of Juventus (the Uruguayan defender Ron Atkinson once nicknamed ‘The Butcher’, affectionately evoking memories of former Bilbao player Andoni Goikoetxea) must have returned to the watching Ferguson.
In the 39th minute, an incisive ball from O’Shea found Rooney around thirty yards from goal, who turned and suddenly had options to concern the home defence. He played in Paul Scholes and Scholes let it run a little too wide to have one of his trademark shots. He floated a cross just in front of the six yard box; it was too high for Park and seemed as if it was too low for Rooney to get there in front of his marker.
The six Roma defenders in the box hadn’t reckoned for the remarkably timed run of Ronaldo, who stormed in out of nowhere to thunder a header into the bottom corner. His leap was so high that he winded himself on landing; it was such a marvellous example of physicality and domination that it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to declare the strike as the best headed goal in the history of the club. Roma did threaten to make a game of it but United were in control and got the second goal their confident display deserved when Doni spilled a cross and Rooney pounced on the loose ball.
United could rightly feel they had one foot in the semi-final and after the game Ronaldo said he felt they were the best team in Europe. “Maybe we are the best team,” he said, “but we mustn’t forget Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Barcelona. Even so, we are in a very good position. To win 2-0 at a big team like Roma is a very, very good result. Every one of the players wants to win not just the Champions League but also the Premier League. I am very happy to score important goals, but remember my team-mates give me the passes. I feel that I am more mature and so are the team from when we lost to Benfica two seasons ago. The team have improved every year. At the moment they are brilliant. Everyone is so confident. We produced a fantastic result against Roma. We are experiencing a good moment. If we carry on like that, with the next game at home and with a 2-0 lead, we have a great situation. But we must not get carried away.”
All of which sounds very respectful, but according to Roma’s David Pizarro — the player on the receiving end of the collision as Ronaldo leapt for goal — the United star was a little too arrogant and needed to learn a lesson. “There is no doubt that he has quality, but it is also true that he has a big head,” said Pizarro. “Some of his little tricks in the middle of the pitch were spiteful and unnecessary and he needs to show some respect to his opposition. You can bet that we will have something to say about it in the return leg.”
Casting an envious eye on the United star was Real Madrid manager Bernd Schuster. “Cristiano, at this moment, is 10 out of 10, the best player in the world,” said Schuster. “He has already overtaken Kaka at AC Milan. You have to be realistic and in the short term it is unfeasible to think Manchester United would sell him. He is the star of United and until they have won the Champions League and more Premier League titles they are not going to allow him to escape. But in a couple of years he may wear the white shirt of Real. Some day he will be with us.”
Manchester City manager Sven Goran Erikkson claimed even his club’s own fans must enjoy watching the player. He said: “Ronaldo is an artist – maybe the number one in the world today. Even if you are a Manchester City fan, you want to see his tricks because that is the art of football.”
Ronaldo’s heroics made him the subject of Sir Alex Ferguson’s pre-match press conference ahead of the trip to Middlesbrough. Considering the history the player had with Boro defenders it was perhaps an opportune time for the United manager to say his player should continue to play the way he was.
“As far as I’m concerned he can carry on doing what he does,” said Ferguson. “Ronaldo is a player who wants to express his every talent, which is why people are prepared to pay £40 or £50 to watch him play every week. It may be annoying to an opponent because he’s prepared to take the ball to them and show these skills, but you can’t deny the boy’s confidence and courage to do that. We do not encourage our players to humiliate opponents. The most important message he is sending out is that this is a great player who is not afraid to receive the ball and try to beat men. In whatever fashion he does it, I don’t care. He’s paid for his ability and his expression of that ability. We encourage him to do that, we encourage it of all our players. It’s an expression of having confidence in the way you play. It’s a breath of fresh air to see players with expression in their game. It’s great that a player like Ronaldo has been able to develop his game to such an extent that he is prepared to try all these skills and tricks in a match. He certainly won’t be intimidated by opponents who want him to stop doing that. That won’t worry him, I’m sure of that. Opponents are kicking him anyway. He took a few tackles and challenges in Rome the other night but opponents can’t kick him out of the game because he is a winner – he will always get up and play. Fans want to see players who are prepared to show talent.”
Sunday Express writer Jim Holden, who had declared Arsenal to be the best footballing team on the planet before their home game with United earlier in the season, was now buying into the narrative that the Gunners’ heavy wins over the likes of Derby County were sufficient reward to compare with a League title or a European Cup; going so far as to compare them with some of the greatest teams in history!
“The happy truth is that Arsenal’s manager and players do have a monumental amount to show for their football this season,” Holden insisted. “They have won national and global admiration for the entrancing beauty and quality of their play. They have delivered pleasure and thrills that will live in the memory long beyond the identity of goal-scorers in the Carling Cup final. Glory in sport lies not just in winning. It is also about the way you play. Some of the greatest football teams of history did not win trophies – Zico’s Brazil of 1982, Cruyff’s Holland of 1974, and the 1954 Magical Magyars of Puskas, for example. They were all teams of glory. Style matters – of course it does. Everywhere this season football people have looked forward to watching Arsenal, whether they are seen-it-all former professionals or wide-eyed young boys. That is a real prize even if it doesn’t come with a cup coated in silver. The Gunners have been a truly captivating team – and was there a more exhilarating moment this season than Theo Walcott’s 80-yard mazy dash and perfect pass for Arsenal’s second goal last Tuesday night? I don’t think so. Style matters – and that is not merely indulgent idealism.”
It was almost convincing enough to make you forget the devastating rapier counter attacks of Ronaldo, Rooney, Giggs and Tevez which had created countless goals in countless wins. Who needs Ronaldo’s header against Roma, Ronaldo’s free-kick against Portsmouth, Ronaldo’s stunning break against Reading, Ronaldo’s… well, you get the picture, when you can have Walcott’s run and assist for a goal in a defeat?
As time has gone on, this Arsenal side has been canonised by their supporters and elevated to a mythical ability which never even remotely reflected their potential. At their most thrilling they were never able to produce that level of performance against a big opponent the way United had been. At their most professional they were never able to control a game the way Chelsea, for example, were renowned to do. They had monopolised the idea of a possession based game but it was clear to see over in Spain that Barcelona were doing it much better. Against their biggest domestic rivals, whatever the kind of battle they wanted to get into, they never came out on top.
Ahead of such a defining game, Ronaldo felt he had more than proven the critics wrong who said he went missing in big games.
“Some people say I need to perform better in the big games,” he said. “I respect their opinion, but I don’t feel I need to prove anything to anyone. “I’ve been very pleased with my own progress and also the progress of the team. I try to improve every season and I think this season has been even better than the last. I believe this squad is the best I’ve been involved in since joining United. It’s more consistent and more mature than any other side. I’m sure I’m a better player now than I was one year ago and definitely better than I was when I first came here. As for why I’ve scored more goals this season, it’s hard to say, but I think I’ve definitely had more chances. My team-mates help me. Just look at Scholesy’s cross in Rome. It’s nice to be recognised as an individual, however, if I had the choice of winning the Champions League or the Golden Boot, I’d pick the Champions League every time. Playing in Europe is totally different to the Premier League. I think it’s more difficult to win in the Champions League, especially away from home.”
Ronaldo insisted it was self-improvement and not the records of others which motivated him, following the recent breaking of George Best’s goals record for a winger.
“I don’t really want to break anybody’s records,” he insisted. “In fact, I feel a little bad, but it is certainly a wonderful record to hold. George Best was an exciting player and I’ve had the opportunity to see a few tapes of his performances. There have been a few goals I’ve really enjoyed. The one against Roma was very satisfying and I also liked the free-kicks against Portsmouth, Bolton and Sunderland.”
Ronaldo hadn’t played in the second leg against Roma but Eric Cantona had nonetheless been asked about the heir to his shirt. “United now have the best team, the best manager and the best player in the world,” he said. “Ronaldo has skills no other player has. He is the best player in the world.It is not important to make comparisons with me. It only matters that Ronaldo plays for United now. But I am happy he is wearing my shirt. It was special to me – I hope it is special to him.”
Ferguson said Ronaldo would not let the praise go to his head. “I don’t see any signs that anything affects him,” he said. “The boy is sensible enough to realise what football is about. Success can affect people – we see that time and time again – but the great quality is to keep your feet on the ground. Yes, he will go and express himself in an extravagant way at times, but that’s a measure of his courage and his ability, which we would never attempt to restrain because we want players to go on the stage at Old Trafford and express themselves in a big, big way.”
Regardless of who anyone brought in, Rooney felt nobody would match the quality of his team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo. “He has not just been the best player of the last two seasons, he’s the best player the Premier League has ever seen – and that’s including Thierry Henry, Gianfranco Zola, Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp and Alan Shearer,” said Rooney. “It’s brilliant for the Premier League to have a player of his talent and obviously it is great to play with him. Cristiano is rightly talked about as the best player in the world. I was surprised he didn’t get the world player award last season. He’s got to get it this time. What he does is no fluke. He works hard at his game, he practices every day. He is one ofthe first in and last away at training every day. He wants to be the best and that is the main thing. His performances on the pitch have been unbelievable. Sometimes the manager takes the balls off us the day before a game so we don’t overdo it. But to be the best you have to practise. You see Cristiano doing different things around the training ground all the time. His attitude is brilliant. And he is a lovely lad off the pitch as well. He’s good for the dressing room.”
Ronaldo – of course – scored a crucial penalty to get United back into a game they would win, tipping the title in their favour. By the end of May, they were league champions, and in the Champions League Final – where they faced Chelsea.
Owen Hargreaves was the only change from the team which defeated Wigan, coming in for Ji-Sung Park who was not in the squad. Ashley Cole passed a late fitness test for Chelsea after being clattered by Claude Makelele in training; Ricardo Carvalho was also named in the team after speculation he would miss out. There was, however, a surprise tactical move from Ferguson, as Ronaldo was played from the left.
The starting line up had led to the suggestion that United might play three in the middle but Ferguson had clearly identified Chelsea’s right side as an area they might be able to exploit. Michael Essien was a superb midfield player but was not a natural right back. Putting him up against the best player in the world, then, seemed like a sensible way of penetrating a defence with a reputation just as good as United’s. It seemed as if United were concentrating on the flanks and were happy to let Chelsea dominate in the middle of the park; certainly, the early chances came from out wide. After seven minutes Owen Hargreaves’ cross might have seen a better outcome had Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney not challenged each other for it. In his first go at Essien, Ronaldo surged past him, and his cross was just missed by Hargreaves coming in at the back post.
Twenty minutes in and there was the first flashpoint; Paul Scholes challenged Makelele for the high ball — the battle of the biggest little man — and both went down in a heap. Chelsea players surrounded the referee Lubos Michel demanding stern punishment for Scholes and Rooney took umbrage to it, involving himself in the argument. Scholes, however, came off worse, suffering a bloody nose; both Scholes and Makelele were booked, even if the Chelsea man was a little unfortunate.
Five minutes later, United had the lead. Scholes and Brown exchanged passes on the right hand side and Brown, running with the ball on the edge of the area, curled a cross with his left foot. At the back post Ronaldo had escaped the attentions of Essien again; the Ghana international had the best view in the house of the winger’s immaculate leap and perfectly timed header towards the near post. Petr Cech had no chance, and Sir Alex Ferguson’s tactical foresight had paid dividends.
You all know what happened next – Frank Lampard equalised. It went to extra-time. Then penalties. Ronaldo missed his kick – the only United player to. But then so did John Terry, and Nicolas Anelka – and United won the Champions League, which meant Ronaldo would almost certainly be awarded that year’s Ballon d’Or. He was.
What happened next?