Ahead of Tuesday’s crucial second leg clash between the two giants of the game, Goal.com looks back at the man that stole the show almost 10 years previous
By Paul Macdonald
As Cristiano Ronaldo prepares to return to Old Trafford for the first time in three-and-a-half years, by contrast it is almost 10 years since his namesake departed Manchester to a standing ovation.
Cristiano will no doubt be greeted by an audience full of gratitude and respect of his previous feats for the club. Despite his unabashed flirtation with Real Madrid, and eventual world record departure in 2009, there are few who would rebuke the notion of a re-acquaintance, in red, in the future. Whether they are so accommodating at full-time if the Portuguese has obliterated his former employer in the manner in which he humiliated Barcelona last week is another matter altogether.
A decade ago, a great Brazilian managed to extract similar approval, albeit in reverse. For United fans, Ronaldo’s mesmerising hat-trick against their team in the 2003 Champions League quarter-final was akin to a leading man stealing the show from the film in which he starred. Those in attendance had arrived anticipating an evening where their protagonists would prevail, and departed with the feared outlaw of the piece plundering their pockets with a style and smile they couldn’t fail to appreciate.
Football fans are often guilty of excessive navel-gazing, taking pleasure in wistfully recalling the moment when their favourite player’s genius was captured in microcosm. Often these memories are distorted by the sycophantic desire for nostalgia. When dissected without bias, their influence can wane, the heady haze of the halcyon days elevating an average moment into infamy.
But Ronaldo’s decimation of that United team has retained its aura, even in the eyes of the most cynical. Granted, superior trebles have been scored, Ronaldo didn’t dictate proceedings as Zidane perhaps would (nor was that ever his want), and members of Sir Alex Ferguson’s back five were deemed to have been all too gracious towards their accepting guest.
It’s also the case that Il Fenomeno had undeniably peaked; the jet-powered, incandescent pace and untainted ability, never better exemplified than during his single season in Barcelona in 1996-97, was no longer evident.
Yet even carrying a few pounds too many on those fragile, susceptible knees, he remained the greatest natural finisher the game has ever seen, and it took him just 12 minutes on that April evening to commence the showcase of his talents. Seventy-seven hat-tricks have been scored since the inception of the Champions League. No other was as impactful, as meaningful, and as instantly re-callable as this.
United were 3-1 down from the first leg at Santiago Bernabeu, and somewhat fortunate to still be in touching distance after enduring a Castilian siege on their goal, breached with incision by Figo and a Raul double.
Ronaldo was a periphery performer in that fixture (indeed Sir Alex Ferguson, post-match, pained to stress that of the burgeoning array of global stars in Madrid’s side, it was Raul whom he feared more than any other). But he embedded the first snapshot in the minds of those in attendance, lashing in a delectable Guti through pass with the kind of instinctiveness and unerring accuracy that had been habitual throughout his career. No first touch, no conception of holding the ball up, no consideration other than the task at hand; ball, from foot, to net.
The eerie silence that cloaked the stadium as the ball ruffled in the corner was in stark juxtaposition to the Red Devils rising in unison, hat-trick delivered, to celebrate him upon his substitution just under an hour later. For an audience that begun the evening craving one outcome, to then unanimously offer acclaim to the very individual that ruthlessly demolished their dreams is indeed rare. In modern, tribalistic football, only Ronaldinho’s evisceration of Real Madrid in 2006 has congregated the respect and adulation of an entire arena of opposition supporters in the same manner as to which Ronaldo was revered.
Sandwiched in between was a simple tap-in, converted from close range, before one of the defining passages of his storied career. Drifting inside, 35 yards for goal, he shifted the ball out of his feet before executing an impeccable drive past the now despairing Fabien Barthez. The expression of satisfaction at his own achievement seems almost prescient in retrospect; his knowing hand gesture, his embrace with almost all of his team-mates in front of the small band of Madridistas, his subsequent admiration from those watching. It merges to create the last time when we could consider Ronaldo as without equal.
All told United won 4-3, their comeback predicated by an easing from the throttle that Ronaldo had floored for much of the match. But even Madrid’s progression seemed somewhat irrelevant given the background to the success; Ronaldo’s personal piece of performance art was then, and still is, the abiding memory of that Champions League season, let alone the match itself.
Back to the here and now. A similarly heroic performance is required from one of Madrid’s current generation, and their very own phenomenon, if they are to bring La Decima closer to reality.
He is more than capable of exacting a similar response from the Old Trafford faithful.
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