Stopping Ronaldo will require every bit of Sir Alex's genius
As Sir Alex Ferguson sat watching the 2nd leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final from his seat in the Camp Nou, Real Madrid put on a master-class to subject Barcelona to their second defeat in 3 games. Sir Alex was there scouting the opposition before the 2nd leg of their Champions League Round of 16 match, which is due to take place on Tuesday. He must have gone there hoping to uncover a chink in Real Madrid’s armour or stumble upon a peculiar way of stopping the Madrid juggernaut. Also on the agenda would have been a meet-and-greet with Cristiano Ronaldo, the crown jewel of Madrid, the 24-carat diamond that Sir Alex himself modelled him into from the rough, uncut piece he was when he first arrived at Old Trafford.
It must have been a proud moment for Sir Alex, watching the Portuguese run rings around the same opposition that out-passed and outclassed his Manchester United side in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals. No doubt he must have had a smile on his face, watching this boy of his, who has now become a man of his own making. At the same time, he must be marvelling at the transformation that Ronaldo has undergone since moving to the Bernabeu. If the Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United was an infuriating dribbler who turned into a special player and carried his team to a League title and European Cup double, the Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid is an altogether different force of nature, capable of hair-raising moments of genius in the allocated 90 minutes, with the singular mentality of scoring goals. If the Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United was a winger who slowly evolved into a forward, the Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid is a hybrid of the two, as likely to destroy the opposition fullback as any other member of the defence, and someone whose location on the field at any given time is as unpredictable as the English weather. If the Cristiano Ronaldo that left Manchester was a player on the verge of greatness, the one that will arrive in Manchester on Tuesday for the second leg is the finished product; a lethal cocktail of speed, aggression, power and timing mixed with game intelligence, technique, laser-guided strikes and supreme bravado. The one thing the two versions of Ronaldo have in common is the ability to single-handedly decide the outcome of a match of football.
And therein lies Sir Alex’s biggest dilemma. To figure out a way to stop the man that he knew would rule football one day. Ronaldo’s headed goal in the first leg at Bernabeu must have evoked memories of that great night in Moscow 2008, when Ronaldo towered over Michael Essien to bury Wes Brown’s left-footed cross from the right flank past Cech and put Man United in the lead against Chelsea. And Ronaldo displayed enough of his new powers in the first leg for Sir Alex to have an uneasy sleep on the eve of the second leg. The free-kick in the first half that cannoned in to the Man United wall may not have been a Ronaldo special, but the follow-up half-volley with his left foot was outrageous to say the least, and De Gea’s prayers were answered at the time as the ball shot past his right post and went out for a goal-kick. Too close for comfort, too much quality to disregard; and for Sir Alex, too risky a player to leave unattended.
Sir Alex has famously said that the only two players he ever man-marked were Zinedine Zidane and Gianfranco Zola; two artists who were not allowed the freedom to roam the field without being shadowed by a Manchester United player, usually Phil Neville. But man-marking a player like Ronaldo is futile, and is an action more likely to upset your own team-structure than the Portuguese’s well-greased hair. Phil Jones did a good job shielding his defense against the marauding runs of Ronaldo, but that too is not a foolproof way of stopping him. This time Sir Alex may not be able to turn to Phil Jones and ask him to reprise his role from the first leg when the Los Blancos come to town, as Jones is in danger of missing the tie due to injury. Anderson could take his place, but then that would a gamble, as the Brazilian himself is prone to positional errors and overeagerness to join in when his team attacks. Who else could do the job then? Cleverley is a passer and a runner and ties the team together with short passes and a tireless work-rate, so instructing him to solely focus on stopping Ronaldo is not making full use of his abilities. Rooney? Too much quality to waste on a purely man-marking gig, and he will most certainly reprise his role as a makeshift wide player, tracking Ronaldo up and down the right flank in tandem with Rafael. Carrick? Not agile enough to keep up with Ronaldo, and United would miss Carrick’s distribution from the center even if he managed to nullify Ronaldo. Maybe we will see Valencia get a run-out, but then he can’t follow Ronaldo when he eventually switches flanks and has a go at Patrice Evra on the left. Questions galore for Ferguson, with the answers not too forthcoming.
All the talks of a repeat of the treble-winning ’99 season are a bit premature. Man United still have to go through Real Madrid and more importantly, Ronaldo. He is stronger, faster, wiser and swats most teams aside like a barbarian. He wants the Champions League, La decima. And even if he needs to decimate the team that is closest to his heart, led by the man he calls his “second father”, you can bet he won’t bat an eyelid. There will be a hug and a cheer waiting for Ronaldo at the end of the match regardless of the outcome, but it would take a very brave man to bet against Ronaldo making it his night come Tuesday, 5th March. Because if Ronaldo shows up at the party wearing his best party hat, Manchester United’s treble could be over before it even begins.