From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.32 :: NO.09 :: Feb. 28, 2009

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FOOTBALL / ENGLISH PREMIERSHIP

Ronaldo magic

This was a day when Manchester United displayed a sense of vulnerability that would not normally be associated with a team whose parsimonious defending had broken all sorts of records of late, writes Daniel Taylor.

The representatives from Internazionale could easily be spotted in the VIP seats. They gave themselves away because of those long, dark overcoats that men of wealth like to wear, particularly those who do their shopping on Via Montenapoleone. They were on a spying mission and the man who had sent them will probably not be surprised that when the report lands on his desk Cristiano Ronaldo’s name will be underlined in red.

As Jose Mourinho will know, the first lesson for any opposition manager to Sir Alex Ferguson’s side is this: do not give away free-kicks within 35 yards of goal if Ronaldo is on the pitch. This is a man who makes his own rules when it comes to dealing with a football and it did not even matter to Ronaldo that to score the winning goal he had to do it from the kind of diagonal range in which it seemed almost impudent not to take the orthodox option and cross the ball. His shot was measured at just below 70mph and the ball swirled, dipped and flew into the top corner. It was easy to imagine the blood draining from Mourinho’s face had he been there to witness it.

It was just a pity that, Ronaldo being Ronaldo, even a goal of this radiance could not guarantee any sustained acclaim. He had, after all, placed himself at risk of being sent off earlier in the second-half when he flicked out a boot at David Dunn shortly before being booked for one of those carefully orchestrated stumbles that, regrettably, still form part of his repertoire.

Sam Allardyce, the Blackburn manager, was suitably unimpressed, arguing that Ronaldo should not have been on the pitch to take the free-kick and noting conspiratorially that Howard Webb sent off the Portuguese at Manchester City earlier this season. Did he suspect it might have been playing on the referee’s mind? Allardyce was not prepared to talk himself into trouble with the Football Association but the clear inference was that he did.

Ferguson disagreed, berating a television reporter for having the temerity to bring it up and arguing that it was highlighted only because it was Ronaldo. The United manager is often accused of being paranoid but on this occasion he had a point, considering that El Hadji Diouf not only aimed a kick at Wayne Rooney but appeared to flash a V-sign at the crowd — an offence that might have been brought up in parliament had Ronaldo been the perpetrator.

The whole afternoon was much the same, with old controversies renewed and Blackburn’s allegations of refereeing bias gaining volume when Webb decided not to award a penalty after Rafael da Silva placed a hand on Morten Gamst Pedersen’s shoulder as he chased him into the United penalty area.

Allardyce suggested, pointedly, that Old Trafford could “intimidate” match officials, an argument that was undermined by the fact Webb had earlier disallowed a perfectly legitimate Jonny Evans goal for a perceived foul by Ronaldo. In any case, football should surely not be encouraging players who automatically hit the ground as soon as there is even a feather’s weight of contact. Pedersen denied Ferguson’s accusation of a “blatant dive” but perhaps in the future he will take the old-fashioned option of trying to score rather than win a penalty.

This was a day, after all, when United displayed a sense of vulnerability that would not normally be associated with a team whose parsimonious defending had broken all sorts of records of late. Most worryingly for Ferguson, they also lost Evans to an ankle injury that, in the manager’s words, leaves them “very, very short in defence.”

United had taken the lead midway through the first-half when Ryan Nelsen’s inability to clear Nani’s cross allowed Rooney to demonstrate that his recent hamstring problem has not dulled his sharpness. But for a side that had gone 1,334 minutes without conceding a league goal it was inconceivable that so many players could have been to blame nine minutes later when Andre Ooijer set up Roque Santa Cruz for the equaliser.

It began with Nani and, to a lesser degree, Paul Scholes, allowing Ooijer to seize the ball in midfield. Santa Cruz held off Rio Ferdinand and Tomasz Kuszczak got his angles horribly wrong as he charged off his line. Santa Cruz eluded them both to score from a difficult angle and, back in Italy, it was easy to imagine Mourinho’s eyes sparkling.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009



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