When the Portuguese is long gone from Old Trafford, his name will continue to evoke memories of his breathtaking brilliance in a United shirt.
Yet there is a hierarchy of legends at Old Trafford and those that scale United’s peaks of greatness have overcome adversity in order to gaze down at the lesser lights beneath them, forged their legend in the most testing of circumstances, and Ronaldo faced his moment of truth against Barcelona in the Nou Camp last night. And the harsh truth is that the moment passed him by.
What is it with European Cup semi-finals and United’s platinum legends?
When Eric Cantona’s mercurial talents were tested in the crucible of the 1997 semi-final against Borussia Dortmund, he failed to reproduce his peerless Premier League form at the more rarified level of the Champions League last four.
Two years later, in Turin, Roy Keane’s seminal performance against Juventus in the Stadio Delle Alpi, after receiving the booking that resulted in him being suspended for the final, transformed him from a great into an icon.
Keane the captain became Keane the colossus as he drove United on to an incredible 3-2 victory against the Italians. His booking for felling Zinedine Zidane blanked out of his mind in order to focus on the greater good of producing for his team.
Missing a penalty is not quite the mortal blow of discovering that you are about to miss the greatest game of your career, but missing a penalty just two minutes into a Champions League semi-final? It requires some resolve, character and courage to overcome that kind of setback and that was Ronaldo’s challenge in the Nou Camp after he had sent his potentially priceless spot-kick against the post with less than three minutes gone.
Ronaldo might be the prince of the Premier League, but there remain doubts over his ability to influence games in Europe as he does those against more limited opponents in England and, on the widest pitch in Europe, he once again failed to measure up as the finished article when it truly mattered.
True, he was often isolated in his role as a lone striker, but the maturity displayed by Keane in Turin was replaced by frustration on Ronaldo’s part against Frank Rijkaard’s disappointing team.
One penalty spurned, Ronaldo was unfortunate not to win two further spot-kicks having drawn fouls from Rafael Marquez and Eric Abidal either side of half-time, but there were no surging runs, just histrionics. At 23, Ronaldo undoubtedly has a dazzling future ahead of him, but this night will ultimately be one for the memory bank, a reference point when he falls into the trap of believing the hype.
When Keane trudged disconsolately off the pitch in Turin nine years ago, he could at least console himself in that he had just produced his defining performance in a United shirt.
But if United fail to progress to the final when they face Barcelona next Tuesday, Ronaldo’s miss, and his performance, might just prove to be the image that defines his United career.