Manchester United 2 Sporting Lisbon 1: Ronaldo's late blast of genius for United

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Of course, it had to be Cristiano Ronaldo's night. The Portuguese is currently in the form of his life and the piece of genius which delivered his side into the second round of the Champions League as group winners last night was one for his old side to remember him by: a vicious, dipping 30-yard free-kick which clinched this tie four minutes into injury time.

The free-kick which led to the strike was a soft one – Anderson did not seem to have been fouled by Liedson – but it would be churlish to dwell on that. The winger's blue boots fashioned all that was good about United before and after a half-time transformation which, with Carlos Tevez and Ryan Giggs arriving from the bench, turned a languid side into a captivating one.

Just as in Lisbon in September, Ronaldo did not make a meal of the kind of strike which keeps him as joint top scorer in this tournament with five goals. But the shrug of his shoulder, outstretched arms and his manager's barely concealed grin said everything. "Fabulous" was how the winger later described it. Not modest. But accurate.

Sir Alex Ferguson already had his eyes on the ramifications this win will have on his team's league campaign, last night. He will rest several players for United's concluding group game in Rome on 12 December, with Anfield beckoning four days later. "One or two players won't travel," said Ferguson.

The manager had had more of a hand than usual in affecting the course of an evening which ended in what he described a "marginal" win. For 45 minutes, his team struggled for fluency and a frustratingly indifferent Louis Saha was a shadow of Wayne Rooney who, Ferguson revealed, will be back to play Fulham here next Monday evening.

Then came some kind of half-time conversation from the manager, followed by Giggs and Tevez in place of Darren Fletcher and Nani. Ferguson, on his feet for much of the second half and out on the pitch with instructions for Patrice Evra, clearly wanted to win this group more than even he had suggested.

The impact was immediate. Tevez glided past Marat Ismalov, who was booked for upending him and only some stout defending from Marian Had prevented Ronaldo scampering through on to Tevez's pass. Michael Carrick began supplying from the deep; Giggs, who is 34 tomorrow, offered purpose; Tevez terrorised.

Before that, Ferguson had only Ronaldo to smile about. His step-over after just two minutes left Anderson Polga stationary and had him through towards goal but Saha didn't read the pass that followed. A flick with the inside of the Ronaldo left heel then diverted John O'Shea's pass into the path of Saha, who struck the ball across the face of goal.

And if that wasn't bad enough for the visitors, their best hopes came from the man who might be following Ronaldo in this direction. Miguel Veloso – a player who holds interest for Ferguson – provided several audacious midfield flicks resonant of his countryman and lifted the ball on to the roof of the net with one second-half strike. The draw of Old Trafford for Veloso is due in no small part to close friendship with Nani and their exchange before the match revealed that fact. The player has chosen United ahead of Milan, Valencia and Real Madrid as his preferred destination at the end of the season, according to reports in the Portuguese press yesterday. His coach said last night that he is resigned to losing him.

Veloso, it was, who played a part in rewriting the usual script. He played a ball to right-back Abel on the right touchline, whose immediate strike towards goal – clearly a cross for Milan Purovic – caught the outside of his boot and crept in at Tomasz Kuszczak's near post, just beyond the young Polish goalkeeper's despairing dive.

Kuszczak's misfortune galvanised Sporting. Within four minutes they might have been credited with a second goal after the 'keeper's unconvincing punch reached Polga whose ball into the box Liedson pounced on and netted. He was millimetres offside.

It made for a dramatic second half, punctuated by United frustrations. A goal – and Tevez's involvement in it – seemed inevitable though the Argentine did not know much about it when it came, on 61 minutes.

Evra collected a ball wide on the left and after a ricochet from his cross the ball was poked across goal by a combination of Saha and Ronaldo before Had, trying to clear, played the ball into the net off Tevez's shin.

United can travel to Rome in two weeks time safe in the knowledge that they will avoid Europe's elite in the next stage. But that is unlikely to halt Ronaldo.

Manchester United (4-3-3) Kuszczak; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Carrick, Fletcher (Tevez, h-t), Anderson; Ronaldo, Saha (Hargreaves, 79), Nani (Giggs, h-t). Substitutes not used: Van der Sar (gk), Brown, Pique, Simpson.

Sporting Lisbon (4-1-2-1-2): Patricio; Abel, Tonel, Polga, Had; Veloso; Moutinho, Romagnoli (Vukcevic, 67); Izamailov (Pereirinha, 81); Purovic (Farnerud, 81), Liedson. Substitutes not used: Tiago, Silva, Gladstone, Luis Paez

Referee: C Larsen (Denmark).

Group F

Remaining fixtures: 12 Dec: Roma v Manchester Utd; Sporting Lisbon v Dynamo Kiev.