‘Ronaldo hat-trick at Old Trafford’ could mean one of three things. Ronaldo of the Cristiano variety accounts for two of them: first there’s his hat-trick against Newcastle in 2008 (surprisingly his only hat-trick at Manchester United, having since managed a ridiculous 18 for Real Madrid- albeit in a decidedly top-heavy La Liga), and then there’s the nightmare outcome all United fans are dreading from tonight’s game, involving the entire United back five being rendered flat on their arses three times in succession as he smugly pretends not to celebrate.
Brazilian Ronaldo’s hat-trick in the 2003 Champions League is the event I’m talking about though. It was gutting for United fans, but now carries with it a kind of bittersweet melancholy akin with England’s Euro 1996 exit.
It funny to think that Ronaldo wasn’t even the source of Fergie’s trepidation in the run-up to the second leg of the quarter final at Old Trafford. It was actually Raul, who had scored a couple of peaches in Real’s 3-1 win at the Bernabeu, whom led Sir Alex to say of him ‘I hope he doesn’t like travelling’. Raul didn’t play at Old Trafford through injury, so what was there to worry about? It was only Zidane, Figo, Guti, Roberto Carlos and that overweight shadow of himself Ronaldo…
Well, it turned out an underactive thyroid and a penchant for all the George Best things in life wasn’t enough to put him off his game. He had already won the World Cup for Brazil a year earlier out of shape and still feeling effects of a couple of horrendous knee injuries sustained for Inter in the previous millennium. So the big guy’s big-game mentality was hardly in question.
His first goal was what us football cliché merchants call a sickener. Zidane found Guti in some space (who spent the entire game away from Roy Keane’s ever-rusting shackles), the Spaniard looked up and played a perfectly weighted through ball to Ronaldo in the inside-right channel. Ferdinand tried to make up ground on Ronaldo, whose knees did still allow for a strong burst of pace, but the Brazilian took both Ferdinand and Barthez by surprise with a laced first-time shot at the near post.
People have often called Barthez’s positioning into question, but the strike was top quality regardless (it was to be Barthez’s final game for United, incidentally). As anyone who plays as well as reads and writes football knows, lacing the ball hard and low as it’s coming across you is a tough technique. The goal was a sickener because it now meant United needed at least three goals to stand a chance of getting through to the semis.
Van Nistelrooy did what Van Nistelrooy did best and tapped in a goal to square the scoreline before half-time. On the hour mark though, Ronaldo’s second was a real sickener, because United now had to score four etc etc… Zidane pulled the Real strings like a puppeteer who no longer needed to look, creating an opportunity for Figo, whose delicate effort hit the woodwork. The next phase of play saw Zidane pick up the strings of his feisty left-back puppet, Roberto Carlos, slipping the marauding Brazilian through the heart of United’s defence. Carlos took Zidane’s pass perfectly in his stride, and unselfishly squared it to Ronaldo who tapped it in from five yards. It was technically a Ronaldo goal, but one that belonged to the team, with Zidane as director and Roberto Carlos as producer (…and Casillas an extra).
The third… Unlike the first two, the third was a real sickener, as it meant United were essentially out of the Champions League. Receiving the ball from Figo about 40 yards out, Ronaldo drifted to the left with the ball at feet. With a shimmy, he cut onto his right, in the process gaining some space from Ferdinand. As Ferdinand dived to block, Ronaldo unleashed a dipping drive into the right side of the net. With a painful 25-yarder sting in the tale, Ronaldo did the equivalent of ringing the neck of a not-quite-dead roadkill pheasant. But he did it with a technique and conviction that even the RSPCA couldn’t help but appreciate. The RSPCA in this story- the home crowd- famously gave Ronaldo a standing ovation as he left the pitch.
His first and third owed something to dodgy goalkeeping and a slightly off-pace Ferdinand, but both- and the third in particular- were brilliant strikes, and Ronaldo should certainly take credit for leaving both for dead with world-class movement, timing and execution. The second goal was all in the build-up play, but without Ronaldo it may not have found its way into the net.
The very fact that Beckham sitting the game out on the naughty step before coming on to score two goals was merely a side show to Ronaldo’s performance gives some indication to just how good it was. I vividly remember the feeling as Ronaldo extinguished United’s hope for progression, not once or twice, but three times. United fans may always hold a strangely exaggerated view of the Brazilian’s contribution that evening because of the gutting consequences, but it was certainly the best hat-trick against Manchester United I’ve ever witnessed. The legend that is Dennis Bailey scored a hat-trick in 1992 at Old Trafford, and Ronaldo’s effort in 2003 has been the only since. And Cristiano had better not become the second Ronaldo to break United’s hearts at Old Trafford through a sublime hat-trick. Or we won’t have him back.