Cristiano Ronaldo held his hands above his head almost in apology; in fact he looked almost as forlorn as when Denis Law scored against his beloved United back in 1974. But we always knew it was going to happen.
Law, whose goal for Manchester City at Old Trafford helped relegate United all those years ago, admitted recently that he has regretted his back-heel ever since and felt depressed when he saw the ball cross the line.
Whether Ronaldo will feel the same is unlikely; but on his emotional and much-heralded return ‘home’ he scored the defining goal by sliding in at the far post to convert a Gonzalo Higuain cross and put Real Madrid 2-1 up in a game in which he had been largely tamed by United’s current heroes and particularly by full-back Rafael.
The goal gives CR7 a chance to fulfil his boyhood dream of winning the Champions League with Real Madrid, just as he did with United in 2008. But surely he will admit the victory felt a little hollow after it took a hugely controversial red card for winger Nani to change a match that until then was passing the Portuguese hero by.
This was a moment Ronaldo had waited a long time for of course; his last match in front the Stretford End was a goalless draw against Arsenal that helped clinch Manchester United’s 18th league title in 2009.
But if the Madeira-born star was regarded as a great player in those days his reputation has moved into a completely different category since then with an astonishing record that now reads 159 goals in 152 games for Real Madrid, the club that paid almost €100million to sign him.
Much of the debate in the build-up to this tie was about how to stop him; some felt it was impossible, others that there was no point even trying; but Sir Alex Ferguson clearly had a trump card in the shape of the ever-improving Rafael
The 22-year-old Brazilian, given Gary Neville’s former number two shirt this season, is rapidly maturing into a defender of real class and ability; a fact not always noticed by the international media that inevitably concentrate on the performances of Robin van Persie or Wayne Rooney.
There was a glimpse of Rafael’s ability in the first tie in Madrid when he did an excellent job on Ronaldo in the first half; a fact referenced by Ferguson in his pre-match press conference.
If anything Rafael was even better at Old Trafford; sticking close to Ronaldo, frustrating him, squeezing the life out of him — helped by 39-year-old Ryan Giggs who was chosen on the right-side of midfield for a reason; and not just because it was the 1000th game of his illustrious career.
So although Ronaldo received a roaring ovation before kick-off — responding with a wave and a tap of his heart — there was absolutely no quarter given or taken after that.
His first touches were jeered and whistled by the Old Trafford crowd and when he struck his first free-kick into a two-man wall after only four minutes the mould was set.
Ronaldo was barely seen for the next 60 minutes despite dropping deeper in search of the ball and switching to the right to test out Patrice Evra from time to time. And wherever he went, he found the same red wall.
Wayne Rooney, surprisingly left out of United’s starting line-up, had summed up United’s approach in the matchday programme by saying: “We’ve played against former players before, it’s part of football. He was always very popular with the players here and of course the fans. But we have to look at Ronaldo as a Real Madrid player, not an ex-United one. We need to stop him.”
There was a feeling in the United camp that Ronaldo, an emotional character, would be hamstrung by the tidal wave of emotions engulfing him at Old Trafford; after all when Academy director Les Kershaw first spotted him playing in an international Under 16s tournament his only reservation about recommending the winger was his temperament.
But in truth Ronaldo showed no signs of that on his return to Manchester and instead it was a harsh red card for another Portuguese winger — Nani — waved by referee Cüneyt Çakir who felt the United man’s foot was too high when it landed in the chest of Alvaro Arbeloa.
That moment effectively sealed United’s fate; because stopping Ronaldo with 11 men is one thing but keeping him at bay with 10 really is an impossibility.
Modric’s stunning equaliser began Real’s comeback but Ronaldo’s far-post finish completed it and undoubtedly earned him a share of the headlines — alongside Cakir.
It wouldn’t be completely unfair to suggest it was his only meaningful contribution; although he did test De Gea with two more efforts in injury time. But that perhaps is what makes the great man great.
The only hope for the Stretford End now is that Ronaldo returns to wear the red of United again one day. Denis Law, of course, never had the chance.
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