Poster boy Ronaldo does what he always seems to do - rises to the big occasion
It could be his next poster campaign, photographed before a green backdrop and plastered life-size across the walls of the Santiago Bernabeu metro station. There was something cartoonish, machine-like, about it. Almost too perfect, a computer game.
The leap, high; the back, straight. The timing, pause included, impeccable. Real Madrid had started well and so had he, but they were trailing 1-0. It wasn’t looking good.
And then Cristiano Ronaldo did what he does. What he always seems to do.
This tie remains alive and United will feel that they have taken a great result from the Bernabeu. Not just because of Robin van Persie’s second-half efforts but also because they took the lead. Nor was Ronaldo Madrid’s only impressive performer but his most decisive intervention, after half an hour, was this game’s stand-out moment. Ronaldo had departed his position on the left and drifted towards the middle, the first steps towards a performance where he often appeared to be everywhere, where his movement away from the ball was almost as important as what he did with it.
Angel Di Maria’s cross was perfect, swinging outwards. Ronaldo went up and didn’t come down, at least not yet. Gary Neville likened him to Michael Jordan. He met the cross and headed past David de Gea. The Bernabeu erupted and the mood shifted. This was Ronaldo’s first Champions League header at Madrid, but it was reminiscent of the goal with which he won his first trophy here, in the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona; that night there was something almost beautiful in the brutality of the way he connected. He had done it again and in his first re-encounter with his former team-mates. That myth was definitively debunked.
He doesn’t do it in the big games? Ronaldo has scored in five or his last six clasicos, including the goal that effectively won Madrid the league title last season. He came into this game as the Champions League’s joint top scorer with six goals.
Seven, now. If there was a chance that he would be too emotional against his former club, there was no evidence. Quite the opposite. This was not just an impressive performance, it was a clever one, in which he moved astutely, dropping deeper and switching sides, composed. Always involved.
Perhaps that should not have come as a surprise. If it took a while for Ronaldo to win this stadium round, there is no doubt now. It is not just that he has changed – his game is more varied, his decision-making more assured – but that they have too. Where once there was critical talk of an individual trying to win it alone, now that is repackaged as responsibility, a special player leading his team.
Jose Mourinho called him the best he has worked with. Alex Ferguson insisted that he is a better player than the one that left Manchester United for €90 million, more mature, peaking.
The game was barely 10 minutes old; the full back Da Silva seemed to be in for a long night. He may have anticipated that already; what he probably did not was that it would not only be Ronaldo who would cause him problems but virtually every Madrid player who ventured into his zone. The goal began with Da Silva being turned by Ozil. Rooney came to his aid and slid in to concede a throw-in.
From the throw, a simple goal, brilliantly executed. Ronaldo had already thumped a free-kick into the wall, sending his follow-up screeching just wide and later smashed one not far over. This time he leapt to head in.
Although Ronaldo drifted out of the game late on and would be grateful for Van Persie’s two misses, there was more to come, De Gea making exceptional saves and Ronaldo sliding in towards Gonzalo Higuain’s low delivery. With five minutes to go, a free-kick a ludicrously long way out flew on to the top of the net and he could not quite get a shot off inside the six-yard box in the final seconds.
That would have been some picture, too much even for Ronaldo. He had already provided the perfect poster.