On April 23, 2003, Old Trafford played host to one of THE great individual performances in the Champions League. Real Madrid were the opposition, with O Fenômeno – Ronaldo as their chief assassin. The Brazilian had already set the world alight in the colours of PSV, Barça, Inter Milan and of course, the Brazillian national side. I had been lucky to get a ticket, having had to apply – no automatice cup scheme in those days. I was luckier still, to be on the front row of the upper tier of the Stretford End!
There were those that considered Ronaldo’s best days to be over, by the time he signed for Los Blancos. Ronaldo signed for Madrid for €46 million, joining a line of Galactico’s such as Luis Figo and Roberto Carlos. He was another to follow the path from Camp Nou to Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. It was a path previously trodden by Michael Laudrup and, more famously, Luis Figo.
United for their part, were enjoying their 28th consecutive season in England’s top flight. They were the dominant force in the English game. The battles of the 70s and 80s with Liverpool, had given way to a North London challenge. Arsenal had become their domestic foes. The previous season had seen United finish third in the league. This was their lowest position in the history of the premier league at that time. They had been bolstered by the arrival of Rio Ferdinand, who crossed the Pennines for the princely sum of £29.1 million. It was another fee to break the British transfer record. By the end of the season, United would lose one of their favourite sons, as David Beckham traded Manchester for Madrid.
The first leg had seen a routine win for Madrid. Luis Figo, the standout performer with a sublime chip over Barthez from the left wing. Barthez’s positioning may have been a bit suspect, but the quick thinking Portuguese winger still had a lot to do from that angle. The King of Madrid, Raúl, added a brace before Ruud Van Nistelrooy, gave United hope with an away goal. “We have a very difficult game, but the one ray of hope is the away goal, if we can score first, it will be an interesting night,” Sir Alex Ferguson said after the game.
So, United’s hopes rested on an early goal and they started in lively fashion. Van Nistelrooy and Giggs forced Iker Casillas into early saves. United found themselves camped on the edge of Madrid’s penalty area. Within 17 seconds of losing the ball though, they were a goal down. United’s task had become much harder. Zidane robbed Veron on the edge of the box, and some slick passing between him, Roberto Carlos and McManaman, sees the ball returned to Zidane, by Figo. As the Frenchman finds Guti in the centre circle, Ronaldo reacts and is already on the move. A darting run catches Ferdinand off guard. By the time the ball arrives at Ronaldo’s feet, his mind is made up. The ball smacks the back of the United net. Heartbreaker! Ronaldo hasn’t even needed a first touch and Madrid are one up.
Thinking back to the game, from my vantage point, Ronaldo didn’t seem to do too much in the actual game. He tended to just drift between the United penalty area and the centre circle. Two terrible knee injuries had taken their toll and he was never one to press or harry a defender into a mistake. He relied on his great dribbling ability, his pace, and the nous to sniff out a chance. There was a moment where this almost brought another goal. In first half stoppage time he receives the ball from Figo, and lays it off to Salgado. He saunters into the box. The resulting cross is overhit and Ronaldo misses the ball with his head by inches. McManaman scuffs the ball with an attempted volley that ends up going backwards, to the delight of the United support. McManaman’s scouse connections, has ensured he was always going to be in for a lively “reception.”
United go in at half time level after Van Nistelrooy turned in a Solskjær cross. But another goal from Madrid seems ominous. The game restarts and Figo goes close to replicating his goal in the Bernabéu. His sublime chip, clipping the angle of post and bar. Madrid retains possession of the ball. Some matador football around the penalty area has United chasing shadows. Wes Brown and John O’Shea seem statuesque as Zidane and Roberto Carlos combine to cut the United defence to ribbons. It leaves Ronaldo with a simple side footed finish from six yards out.
Incredibly, United, roared on by a ferocious and effervescent support are level two minutes later. A cross from Veron deflects off Helguera and lifts United’s hopes. Veron and Solskjaer then both go close to scoring again. But United are always chasing the game. Meanwhile Madrid continues to rely on the genius of their star-studded line up.
In the 59th minute, Makele beats a couple of players and sets off on a driving run. He looks for a return pass, but instead Figo finds Ronaldo, who feints left and drops his shoulder. Brown, completely wrong footed is slow to react. Silvestre tracks the run of Figo. Ferdinand, the world’s most expensive defender, is reduced to standing like a one man wall on the edge of the area. Ronaldo’s strike, off the laces of his right boot, arrows over a despairing Barthez into the net. The brazillian has a hattrick and is quickly mobbed by ecstatic team mates.
I’m stood there feeling absolutely gutted. Yet I find myself applauding an absolute genius. I’m brought back to reality as I’m shoved in the back of my shoulder, almost losing my balance and sending me over the top of the Stretford End. I turn around to see an angry fellow supporter behind me, “what do you think you’re doing?” he shouts. “You can’t do owt about that, that’s just world class, lad!” is my instant reply. The “absolute cheek of it”, I think as I turn around trying to work out how many more goals we might need?
With 23 minutes remaining, our chief tormentor’s number is up. Del Bosque replaces Ronaldo with Solari. Suddenly the who of Old Trafford rises. It’s a standing ovation from the genius from Rio. I turn around to find my not-so-aggressive mate, clapping his little hands off. I manage a thumbs up, a wink and a “knowing” smile.
Rio Ferdinand was just one of those who were tormented by Ronaldo that night. I’ll leave it to him to run the rule over the goals from Madrid that night. The No. 6 shirt had a short lifespan where Ferdinand was concerned. Playing against one of the world’s greatest effectively retired the shirt in Ferdinand’s mind at least.
Oh and yeah, here are the highlights…