Ronaldo too much for Man United
Recently named Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) player
of the year, Ronaldo bagged a hat trick to propel Real Madrid into the semifinals of the United
European Football Association (UEFA) Champions League. His World Cup exploits in Japan and South
Korea earned his nomination for the award.
One can easily glance down the Real bench and select from a number of established
internationals. But the baby-faced Brazilian with a toothy grin had yet to prove himself on the
club level. With a club that boasts the likes of Figo, Zidane, Roberto Carlos, Raul and Hierro
on any given night, there is bound to be some resentment and a clattering of egos.
After two injury-plagued seasons with Inter Milan, Ronaldo moved to Spain
in a much-publicized switch. Would he get enough playing time in Reals competitive forward
line? Could he recapture the form that propelled Brazil to a World Cup victory over Germany just
nine months ago? But more importantly, could he stay injury-free for the current European Cup holders?
Down by two early goals in the first leg in Spain on April 8, the Manchester
United hung in and Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy bagged an all-important road goal to give
the visitors hope entering Wednesdays showdown. Though Madrid forward Raul (who holds numerous
Champions League records, including most goals and appearances) would eventually bag a second goal,
Man Us hill would be arduous, but not insurmountable.
Due to the away goals rule, the 3-1 advantage for Madrid only meant that
United could not give up one goal and if they did, would have to score four times to advance. Man
U manager Sir Alex Ferguson acknowledged the work that would have to be done on Wednesday: We
can score goals but the $64,000 question is, can we stop them. It is the biggest test my young
defenders have ever had.
Both squads were without key players. Uniteds gritty midfielder Paul
Scholes and right back Gary Neville were suspended and Madrids Raul had to undergo an emergency
appendectomy. In addition to these missing stars both managers mixed up their starting eleven.
Real boss Vicente del Bosque favored young Spanish star Guti in Rauls
left attacking role while inserting former Liverpool stud Steve McManaman in a holding role. With
no other changes and given the depth and talent of del Bosques 4-2-3-1 configuration allowed
fullbacks Roberto Carlos and Michel Salgado to complement the firepower of the front four.
With a goal deficit, one would think Sir Alex would break with his patented
4-5-1 formation, especially with no Scholes to play in the hole just behind the Dutchman. But the
Scot, never one to back down from controversy, elected to stick with the tried and true, starting
Argentinean star Juan Sebastian Veron who had not played since early March. It would be a question
throughout the match as to where the creativity and playmaking would come from with no Scholes
and a barely match-fit Veron. Again, super-sub Ole Gunnar Solksjaer took David Beckhams place
on the right side of midfield (as he did a fortnight prior in Madrid) causing many to question
whether there is a rift between the prodigal son and the heavy-handed Ferguson.
United looked dangerous from the start with van Nistelrooy forcing an excellent
save from Madrids Iker Casillas. The game then settled down with no team in complete possession.
United, featuring Irishman John OShea and Welsh international Ryan Giggs overlapping on the
left flank, pressed forward needing quick goals. Reals strategy was to sit back and wait
for mistakes and to counterattack through the likes of Zidane and Roberto Carlos, wizards on the
That strategy worked with twelve minutes gone as Zidane fed Guti who then
played a superb through-ball into Ronaldos path. The Brazilian struck it first time to beat
French keeper Fabien Barthezs short side. Replays of the goal showed that Rio Ferdinand did
not close down fast enough and Barthez was a little too far off his near post. A stunned crowd
could only gasp as Madrid extended their goal lead.
The game then mucked around in midfield with Real content to backpass to
their hearts desire and have the Red Devils chasing shadows for much of the half.
But Man Us faithful do not pack the Theater of Dreams to witness one-nil
yawners. When the equalizer came, Old Trafford rocked again.
With three minutes before halftime, Giggs juked his way into the box, fed
Solksjaer, and the Norwegian somehow floated the ball over an outstretched Casillas for the Dutchman
to volley home. It was the Ruud boys 12th goal of the European campaign, breaking his own
In fairness to United, they were unlucky to hear the halftime whistle with
momentum clearly swinging to the home side.
Needing two goals to send the game into extra time and then a third to advance
to the semis, the Red Devils were the aggressors in the early moments of the second half. Solksjaer
was again denied by a fabulous save and United looked to maintain possession.
But Real looked the more comfortable of the teams the entire night even on
hostile ground. Too many turnovers by United proved costly as the visitors were keen on the ball
and made United work for every inch of the pitch. Short, concise passing and the ball skills of
Zidane and Roberto Carlos eventually sent another shudder throughout the hallowed grounds.
After a turnover in midfield, Man U packed the box not knowing which superstar
to defend. After Zidane worked a perfect one-two with Roberto Carlos the fleet-footed Brazilian
wingback had the option to shoot or look for a teammate. With central defenders Mikael Silvestre
and Rio Ferdinand nowhere in sight, Carlos fed a streaking Ronaldo who easily converted into the
At this point in the match I thought it was over, honestly. Though the victor
was all but decided, Sir Alexs squad was not prepared to go down without a fight.
Fullback Wes Brown slid a low pass to van Nistelrooy in the box and connected
with Solksjaer who found Veron in space. The Argentineans left-footed effort was more of
a pass than a shot and bundled off defender Ivan Helgueras foot for an own goal.
United almost took the lead as Casillas made a brilliant point blank save
on Solksjaer after Keane fed Giggs and the Welshman played the Norwegian on and volleyed straight
at Casillas. One minute later, Solksjaer nodded Nicky Butts lob down for Veron, whose first-time
shot was again parried away by the Spanish international number one.
Man-of-the-match Ronaldo soon erased any hope of Uniteds chances for
the semifinal in an incredible individual effort. The hat-trick hero completed the feat thirty-two
minutes from time. Given too much room outside the box, the Brazilian superstar unleashed an absolute
cracker, bending around a flailing Barthez.
When Beckham was finally introduced for Veron in the 63rd, his immediate
impact only confirmed Fergusons decision to bench him. A patented cross from the Golden Boy
found the Norwegian at the near post, but flashed his header wide. Then, twenty minutes from time,
van Nistelrooy was fouled 25 yards out. Becks then delivered a sublime free kick over the wall
and off the underside of the bar with Casillas firmly rooted to the spot.
United grabbed a late consolation winner in the 85th with Giggs feeding van
Nistelrooy streaking down the left. The Dutchmans shot ping-ponged off Casillas and Hierro
only for Johnny-on-the-spot Beckham to tuck home for his second of the game.
Though Man U would win the second leg 4-3, the goal aggregate finished at
6-5 Real. Questions will be asked of Fergusons selections in the starting lineup, particularly
playing Wes Brown out of position and no support striker for the Ruud boy. But on a night filled
with world-class players, the great Ronaldos individual skills shone through. United must
be rewarded for coming back on three separate occasions against the reigning Cup champs.
Three Italian clubs have reached the semifinals, played May 9 and 16. Real
Madrid will play Juventus of Turin and in a Milan derby, AC will face Inter in what should be a
thrilling match-up at the San Siro.