This feature is part of Virtuoso
Often contrary to what is seen in the modern day, Old Trafford was once a most unforgiving experience for any away side during Manchester United’s best days under Sir Alex Ferguson. The loud, raucous atmosphere would complement the sheer quality of the home side to give any team in the world a formidable task to overcome. In 2003, though, just around the time of Ferguson’s best years at the club, when Real Madrid came to town, they had their own advantage and he went by the name of Ronaldo.
Arguably the finest footballer in the world at the time, the Brazilian was an unstoppable force and the past year had been excellent for him. Twelve months prior, he was struggling with a career-threatening injury but, in the time since, he had gone on to break records at the 2002 World Cup, earning a stunning move to the Spanish capital and was enjoying a fine debut season donning the famous white of Los Blancos. Despite all of that, it was perhaps the 90 minutes in Manchester where he himself would recognise his true greatness and where he would feel most respected as a professional footballer.
Coming into the second leg of a Champions League quarter-final, Los Blancos brought with them a 3-1 lead from home. Manchester United were popular for their comebacks in recent years and, with this one being at home, they could be confident of enjoying another famous night. Old Trafford was also hosting the Champions League final that year so the Red Devils knew that a win would take them a step closer to winning Europe’s biggest competition on their hallowed turf. Knowing they had to score at least twice, you could bet that Sir Alex was prepared. What he could not plan for was the greatness of one man.
United started well, Ryan Giggs and Ruud van Nistelrooy threatening Iker Casillas’ goal, but all that initial motivation was sucked out of them just before the quarter-hour mark. After intense pressure, the home side had to transition from attack to defence but were too slow for the Galácticos’ incredible movement. Zinedine Zidane picked up the ball on the halfway line, passed it to Guti, who played a neat pass forward to the right boot of Ronaldo and, without even taking a touch, he smacked the ball into the net to give United and even bigger mountain to climb.
On the face of it, he shouldn’t be scoring from there. It was from an awkward angle and even with Fabien Barthez still sorting his feet out, he should not be scoring from there. If there was a goal to describe how good Ronaldo was, this is it. Using the speed of the ball to his advantage and combining it with his predatory instincts, he ferociously shot under Barthez’s arm and burst off into a worthy celebration of an incredible goal. Like a baseball pitcher, this goal came at a ruthless speed and, over the course of the night, United were to suffer even more. Strike one.
United were resilient but so were their opponents. Van Nistelrooy equalised just before half-time but, just minutes into the second period, they were pegged back again. Ronaldo would strike for a second time on the night, with this goal a result of Real Madrid’s typical speed and a succession of sloppy defending from the home team.
After a glorious moment of crisp passing around the United box between Guti and Zidane, a give-and-go would lead to the Spanish midfielder finding himself in acres of space before squaring it to the unhinged Ronaldo, who had just broken free of the suspect defensive pairing of John O’Shea and Wes Brown. Real Madrid were back in front and, this time, it looked like qualification was certain. Although there was great optimism during the build-up, the goal quietened Old Trafford. Strike two.
The home side would equalise soon after the second blow but the party piece was yet to come. It could be said that Manchester United were the better team on the night but were denied by flashes of brilliance from Ronaldo, and a perfect example of that was the third goal.
After receiving the ball, a good 25 yards away from goal, the forward would take a few steps forward, drift inside a little and release another wild shot that flew straight into the corner of Barthez’s net. No complaints with the positioning of the goalkeeper this time, no complaints against the poor defending – this was simply magic from Ronaldo. Strike three. United were out.
Time would stand still as the Red Devils could only stare at the ball passing them by. Three moments of genius were what separated them from the last four of Europe’s biggest competition and Old Trafford duly recognised that. David Beckham would mount a rousing comeback after coming on as a substitute, scoring twice to lead the club to a 4-3 win, but Ronaldo had already put the tie beyond reach.
As Ronaldo was later substituted, he would receive a rapturous applause from everyone in the ground. To understand that in greater context, the home fans saluted a man who brought their team down to its knees and denied them what is possibly a once-in-a-lifetime chance to lift the Champions League title in their own backyard. This was the greatness of Ronaldo, the greatest striker of his age.
By Karan Tejwani @karan_tewani26
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp