The Italians are lords of the roost, with three teams in the Champions League. But to the romantics, there can only be one overlord – the regal Spaniards, Real Madrid. With impunity, they put Manchester United in their place. Now, it is left to be seen if those silken skills can also overcome the grinding win-at-any-cost approach of the Italians.
LONDON: Only the Italians, or rather Italian clubs stocked with international talents, can now prevent Real Madrid's re-coronation as the greatest football team in Europe.
After a week in which Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan ground out results that put them into the UEFA Champions League semifinals, who can be certain that their none-shall-pass tactics will not end the imperious Madrid gallop that on Wednesday eclipsed Manchester United in exhilarating style?
It is a sobering thought to bring us down from cloud nine after the manner in which coach Vicente Del Bosque's Real traded goals with United, always maintaining the fine edge so that even though Real lost the game, they gained an aggregate 6-5 victory over the two legs.
The romantics say Real Madrid cannot be beaten.
Realists must look at the artful cunning returning to Italy's top teams and to the gruesome but effective way Juventus (Madrid's semi-final opponent next month) dealt with Barcelona and the brinkmanship of the two Milan clubs who will meet twice at the San Siro in the other semi-final.
But we get ahead of ourselves. The pulse is still racing from what happened at Old Trafford, where the sport was transported back to another era when defences were collapsible and forwards made names for themselves.
The final score on Wednesday was Manchester United 4, Ronaldo 3. In 30 years of visiting that stadium, I cannot recall the home crowd, all 66,708 of them, rising to give an ovation to a victorious foe. Ronaldo had three shots, scored three goals, destroyed Fabien Barthez and the home defence before being taken off to rest shortly after an hour.
If there was ever a performer who won hearts and minds and the biggest contests on the major stages quite like Ronaldo, the name escapes me. The “Fat Boy,” the “Lazy Brazilian,” as cruel observers dubbed him in his first months in Real white, was perhaps transformed by wearing black on this starlit occasion.
His first goal, after 12 minutes, was testimony to the sixth sense of the goalscorer, the ability to move where space can be found. He was there, and free for a fraction of a second, after Steve McManaman, Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane and Guti had mesmerised United with their Harlem Globetrotter interpassing.
Guti's final ball was the invitation for Ronaldo to score, with instant power, low inside the near post of Barthez. Barthez, who once denied Ronaldo a World Cup, was startled. Rio Ferdinand, a US$45 million defender, was as slow of thought and movement as Ronaldo was swift.
From that moment on, United were chasing the game. The look on the face of Alex Ferguson, the United manager, who had prophesied that his players could handle Ronaldo, said more than words. He had been relieved when Raul, the striker he feared most, was out after an appendix operation, but Raul's absence merely left the stage to Ronaldo.
“Ronaldo's third goal was a marvellous strike,” said Ferguson. “You cannot legislate for talent like that. It's what makes them the best players in the world.”
That goal, looped with power and perfect precision over Barthez from outside the penalty area, took the breath away. The second Ronaldo goal, tapped in from closer range after Zidane, Figo and Roberto Carlos shredded the right of United's resistance, wasn't bad either.
“We created just three chances for him,” said the lugubrious Del Bosque. “And he scored all three. He is becoming the player we wanted him to be.” Heaven help the opposition if Ronaldo is still in transition.
Each time the Brazilian scored at Old Trafford, the home team had the guts, the team spirit and the pride to equalise. First Ruud van Nistelrooy poached a goal after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer bravely darted past Ivan Helguera. It was Van Nistelrooy's 75th goal in fewer than 100 games for Manchester.
Then the Achilles heel to Madrid's greatness, their soft-centred defence, gave goals away. Helguera put through his own goal. Fernando Hierro, the captain, who had stared so accusingly at his partner, would have added a second own goal had David Beckham not raced in to get a final touch, one of two goals he scored.
Beckham's part in a three-act Ronaldo thriller had been poignant but, like anything United did, always a little late to affect the outcome. Real were superior, Real were showboating, Real were vulnerable only through their own arrogance and never to the extent that they might actually lose.
In Italy, that was never the case. AC Milan had Filippo Inzaghi's sharpness and his bravery to thank for overcoming a spirited Ajax team in a contest that was in the hands of the Dutch club until the first minute of time added for injuries and stoppages. Inzaghi scored first, created a goal for Andreij Shevchenko, and had the glory of his own winning strike stolen on the goal line by Jon Dahl Tomasson. In between, Jari Litmanen and Steven Pienaar had scored for Ajax.
Had it finished at 2-2, the Amsterdam club, with so many young players, would have won on away goals. But that Italian trait of doing just enough, just in time, prevailed for the third time this week. – IHT