After what George Best called the most exciting debut he had seen, the flicks, tricks, stepovers and goals just kept on coming
Cristiano Ronaldo dribbles past Stylianos Giannakopoulos and Nicky Hunt of Bolton Wanderers on his debut at Old Trafford in 2003. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images
1) 16 August 2003: Manchester United 4 Bolton Wanderers 0
Ronaldo’s Old Trafford unveiling was remarkable in many ways, not least for George Best calling it the most exciting debut he had ever seen when the winger was on the pitch for only 30 minutes. The score was 1-0 to United when Ronaldo came on for Nicky Butt after an hour. By the end it was four and could have been more and the Bolton defenders Nicky Hunt, Ricardo Gardner and Ivan Campo were all glad to hear the final whistle. Pace, power, stepovers, quick feet and quality set-piece delivery: the 18-year-old seemed to have the lot, as one commentator noted. Life after David Beckham was not going to be dull after all.
2) 13 January 2007: Manchester United 3 Aston Villa 1
Ronaldo had already scored a couple of goals in the away win at Villa Park that put United on top of the table at Christmas. Here he added another to confirm his side were on course for another title after the three-year interruption caused by Arsenal’s Invincibles and José Mourinho’s Chelsea. The winger rose at the far post to put away a cross from Michael Carrick with the Villa defence in disarray. Ronaldo was on his way to his first Premier League title and his heading ability, indeed his all-round finishing composure, was beginning to get noticed. “Manchester United are a very fine side,” Martin O’Neill said in defeat. “They create a lot of chances and more importantly they have players who can take them.”
3) 10 April 2007: Manchester United 7 Roma 1
This was one of the great Champions League performances at Old Trafford after United had come back from the first leg of the quarter-final in Rome with a 2-1 deficit, and Ronaldo was at the heart of it. Carrick and Alan Smith scored two early goals, the latter in his comeback from a long and serious injury. Wayne Rooney added a third before Ronaldo scored the first of two after cutting in from the right. Early in the second half he met a cross from Ryan Giggs to make it five. The landslide win, completed with further goals from Carrick and Patrice Evra, prompted Lazio supporters to get together and send a letter of congratulation to Sir Alex Ferguson, complete with seven cases of Chianti.
4) 11 November 2007: Manchester United 2 Blackburn Rovers 0
Blackburn were going well under Mark Hughes, with Roque Santa Cruz and Christopher Samba proving astute signings, but they were blown away by two goals and an all-round display of impudent excellence by Ronaldo. In terms of the flicks, the tricks, the backheels and the stunning running with and without the ball this was probably peak Ronaldo. He was all over the pitch and Blackburn found it hard to lay a glove on him. But for Brad Friedel’s goalkeeping the scoreline and the player’s own tally might have been even more impressive, though Ronaldo’s goal figures for the year 2007 were already striking enough – at this point 26 goals in 51 games for club and country.
5) 12 January 2008: Manchester United 6 Newcastle United 0
A relatively undistinguished game – Newcastle were between managers after dismissing Sam Allardyce, and Alan Smith, now playing against his old club, was sent off at the end for disputing the legitimacy of Carlos Tevez’s stoppage-time sixth – was made memorable by the scoreline and Ronaldo’s only hat-trick in English football. If that seems remarkable given his astonishing accumulation at Real Madrid, bear in mind that Ronaldo was still playing on the wing for United, with Rooney and Tevez up front. A clever free-kick below the wall brought his first goal against Nigel Pearson’s Newcastle, the second was a confident finish to a four-man passing move and the last a shot that took a deflection to beat Shay Given.
6) 10 May 2009. Manchester United 2 Manchester City 0
Ronaldo’s final goal for Manchester United was nothing special by his standards, a by now routine free-kick that took a slight deflection before going past Given, the Newcastle goalkeeper having joined Robinho, Elano, Nigel de Jong and Vincent Kompany at newly wealthy City. The win virtually confirmed a third successive title, with Ronaldo withdrawn early to keep him fresh for the Champions League final against Barcelona and pulling faces as he took his place on the bench as if annoyed by the decision. If disappointment in Rome confirmed that a thrilling era had come to a rather anti-climactic conclusion for United, for Ronaldo personally it was just the start of something even bigger.