Optimism raged through the veins of the Manchester United fans as they made their way to Old Trafford ten years ago to this Tuesday. Sure, they had lost 3-1 away to Real Madrid in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League quarter-final and, yes, they would be without suspended duo Gary Neville and Paul Scholes for the return fixture. They were, however, uplifted by an invigorating second-half performance in central Spain, the absence of the man who had hurt them most there in two-goal Raul, and, particularly, a tradition of rousing comebacks in the daddy of European club competitions.
One of those had come against Real, at the Bernabeu in 1968, when the ‘Busby Babes’ scored twice without reply in the last 17 minutes to sneak into the European Cup final, which they won. Another two came in the semi-final and final of their charge to a second continental conquest in 1999, when they overturned seemingly impossible circumstances to edge Juventus in Turin and Bayern Munich in Barcelona.
Dream comebacks were a United speciality, the castle in which they would chase another was affectionately referred to as ‘The Theatre of Dreams’, and the Champions League final would unfold at Old Trafford. Getting past Vicente Del Bosque’s men seemed like destiny.
But one man who never subscribed to scripts was at work in Manchester that evening. It didn’t take him long to begin destroying United’s.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s charges had started brightly, with Ryan Giggs showing flashes of his threat and Ruud van Nistelrooy stinging Iker Casillas’s fingers with a fizzing strike. But on 12 minutes – and within a mere 16 seconds of the ball being in the Real box – it was in the back of Fabien Barthez’s net. Zinedine Zidane collected possession on the left and before his pass had even reached Guti, who was in the centre circle, Ronaldo had cutely slipped out of Rio Ferdinand’s handcuffs and set off. The Spain midfielder masterfully threaded a through-ball into the path of the Brazil striker, who still had significant work to do as he reached it on the edge of the box, at a shot-hindering angle to the right, with the ball bouncing and running away from goal. Ronaldo, however, surprised the France goalkeeper by not only hitting it first time, but by also neglecting to take the obvious route across goal and instead fizzing a vicious, low drive into a seemingly non-existent gap inside his near post. Ruud van Nistelrooy’s away goal had been cancelled out.
United equalised on the stroke of half-time, though, when Giggs and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer combined to gift Van Nistelrooy a predator’s tap-in. It was tie on – at least for all of seven minutes.
For following a period of captivating Real possession shortly after the restart, Roberto Carlos played a defence-dissecting one-two with Zidane. The Brazil left-back then cleverly cut the ball back past Barthez and into the path of the 26-year-old Ronaldo, who had discreetly ghosted between Ferdinand and John O’Shea and duly did the rest from seven yards.
Real’s second away goal left United requiring four goals without reply to advance, but they sliced into that deficit just two minutes later, when Ivan Helguera inadvertently turned Juan Sebastian Veron’s pass into his own net.
An almighty roar reverberated around Old Trafford, but the volume was at the polar opposite side of the sound scale just seven minutes later. That’s when Ronaldo collected possession in midfield, galloped forward, slalomed right in an instant, and unleashed a ferocious 25-year drive that dipped into the back of the net to make it 3-2 on the night and 6-3 on aggregate. The impotent looks on the faces of the invariably indomitable United players said it all: a superhuman performance had put the tie out of reach.
Naturally, the United supporters were crestfallen. Yet they put their grand disappointment aside in a unique, unforgettable display of respect on 67 minutes. As Ronaldo jogged off the pitch to be replaced by Santiago Solari, the entire crowd gave him a standing ovation.
Perhaps the footballing Gods decided that seldom show of appreciation deserved a reward. For, thereafter, substitute David Beckham combined curl, speed and dip so masterfully that Casillas didn’t even move as the No7’s 20-yard free-kick went in off the underside of his crossbar. Beckham then bundled the ball home at the back post to earn United a 4-3 victory on the night.
It was one which nevertheless belonged to Ronaldo. One of the greatest footballers in history had delivered arguably the chef-d'oeuvre of his revered club career – one so magnificent that even his victims couldn’t help but applaud.
“It was a magical night, just incredible,” O Fenômeno told FIFA.com on its ten-year anniversary. “We had a great football match and the fans appreciated my performance. I remember when they substituted me in the second half, I left the field to an ovation from the fans. It was amazing.”