Sunday, January 27, 2008
ESPNsoccernet: January 28, 11:49 AM UK
Ronaldo does it again
Stretching superlatives and defences alike, Cristiano Ronaldo continues on his remarkable path. The prolific Portuguese may be better than the best around the world and, indeed, better than Best.
It is now 25 goals in 23 starts for Ronaldo, whose domination for a second successive Premier League season has now extended to overcoming Tottenham in the FA Cup. He is on course to surpass the 32 goals that is the current record for a Manchester United winger. That was set by George Best four decades ago and, while it once bordered on blasphemy at Old Trafford to suggest as much, Ronaldo may be the superior player.
In the manner of the great goalscorers, he has the capacity to decide games where his involvement has been peripheral. That is a trait more associated with, say, Ruud van Nistelrooy, than Ronaldo but as arguably the Premier League's two finest strike partnerships met at Old Trafford, the match was decided by the country's most productive winger.
In the process, he contrived to upstage Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez plus Robbie Keane and Dimitar Berbatov. And, not for the first time, he proved his manager wrong. This week, Sir Alex Ferguson made the remarkable admission that: 'I signed him as a winger, pure and simple. I didn't spot his goalscoring potential at all.'
It has been a welcome benefit nonetheless. Ronaldo's latest brace were among the least memorable in his collection, though a coolly converted penalty and a shot that, thanks to an error by Radek Cerny, squirmed under the Tottenham goalkeeper turned a potentially awkward replay into a safe passage into the last 16 of the FA Cup.
The accumulation of seven goals in his last four games is the sort of statistic that each of the four specialist strikers on the pitch would have coveted. In an era when partnerships in attack are a comparative rarity, United and Spurs possess perhaps the best around. Yet it is notable that each of the quartet are footballers first and strikers second, with a capacity to involve themselves all over the pitch.
Rooney, for instance, cleared off his own line when Berbatov met Aaron Lennon's corner and flighted the pass from the half-way line that led to Tevez's equaliser. Keane's goal came from no more than three yards, sliding in to finish Lennon's low cross but much of his finest work occurred in deeper positions.
Indeed, the Tottenham strikers combined on the half-way line for Keane's improvised pass to send Jermaine Jenas through on goal. Steed Malbranque had done likewise on the stroke of half-time and the midfielder's inability to take either opportunity cost Tottenham.
But, as Sir Alex Ferguson noted: 'Some of the movement today was similar to what they did against Arsenal. You have to give them credit for playing those wonderful passes through the middle.'
From another incisive Malbranque pass, Berbatov volleyed against the post, almost earning Tottenham a replay that Ramos felt they merited. Yet 'almost' was the operative word for Tottenham though both his and their performance contained much to admire. If his pale complexion, languid approach and propensity for mooching around like the town Goth make Berbatov appear disinterested, his often impeccable touch is more significant than his facial expression.
Yet, as the focal point of the attack - something United, fluent as they are, often lack - he indicated why he would add a different dimension to the champions' team should Ferguson's long-term admiration prompt a bid.
But this was a match that suggested both teams have greater need for reinforcements at the other end. It is rare that United require a defensive left-back, but this was one occasion, with Patrice Evra's struggles against Lennon only alleviated when the winger was substituted.
The Tottenham rearguard, meanwhile, can be held responsible for their elimination. Ramos said: 'The things that tipped the balance towards Manchester United, hung on the three or four chances we had and maybe a couple of errors defensively.'
If anything, that is an understatement. While the two midfielders fielded at the back, Tom Huddlestone and Jamie O'Hara, acquitted themselves respectably, the supposed specialists fared far worse. Cerny was culpable for Ronaldo's second, Young-Pyo Lee was substituted because United won a succession of headers against him and Michael Dawson capped a dreadful display by being sent off.
Having misjudged one header before Tevez's opener, a second miscalculation proved still more costly as he handled when Rooney was about to shoot, bringing both a penalty and a red card. 'I think it was a handball and if it was handball, then it was a correct decision,' said Ramos, refusing to complain.
With Ledley King rather predictably injured, Dawson's difficulties mean that the imminent arrival of Jonathan Woodgate cannot come soon enough. An alternative, given that Tottenham's squad is overloaded with midfielders and Huddlestone and O'Hara performed well at the back, would be to select a defence comprised entirely of them.
United, meanwhile, have a midfielder, in Ronaldo, who is outscoring their strike force. No wonder the strike partnership is becoming a thing of the past.
• MAN OF THE MATCH: Paul Scholes - This was a match with plenty of possible turning points, from the Jenas misses to Dawson's dismissal and the subsequent penalty Ronaldo converted. But the return of Scholes, making his first appearance for three months, enabled United to regain control in the final half-hour. The legs may be older, but his passing remains outstanding.
• MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: This was far from their finest performance, but they retain the ability to win when below their best, aided by Ronaldo. But in his absence, the significance of Nemanja Vidic was shown while Scholes, when fully fit, showed why he merits an instant return to the starting line-up.
• TOTTENHAM VERDICT: The front four of Lennon, Keane, Berbatov and Malbranque rival any in the country. The back four are another matter entirely. It says much for the hapless Younes Kaboul that a midfielder, Huddlestone, was preferred in the centre of defence. In the long term, Ramos may require an entirely different quintet to the goalkeeper and defenders fielded today if Spurs are to prosper. Tottenham are already Carling Cup finalists, but if they could defend, they really would be a force to be reckoned with.
• ARABIAN RIGHTS: After a week of sun, sand and sheikhs, United were somewhat shaky at the back. Much as they may argue their mid-season trip to Saudi Arabia was beneficial, few were convinced as Spurs were the livelier side for much of the match. A virus was the official reason for Vidic's absence but, as he was last spotted on a camel in the desert, the speculation at Old Trafford was that he had become the first footballer to be sidelined by a camel-inflicted injury.
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