Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Cristiano Ronaldo looked, for 20 minutes or so last night, as if the talk about his maturing over the last 12 months might just have been overblown and that those taunts about Roma pleading with him for mercy at Old Trafford last April were a serious mistake. Then he came flashing through the Italian side's defence to score the headed goal which laid to rest many a doubt about his big-game temperament. After Barcelona's win at Schalke , fate seems to have Ronaldo destined for the Nou Camp and another European adventure.
That occasion – should United prevail, as they surely must, at Old Trafford next Wednesday – will certainly be more testing than this. Roma, whose attacking, flowing football, with midfielders who morph into strikers, had invited pre-match comparisons with Sir Alex Ferguson's side, flattered to deceive.
But take nothing away from Ronaldo's response to a difficult start in this cauldron, where boos were greeting his every touch. His goal will make for some pleasing statistical reading for him this morning, taking him as it does above Barcelona's Lionel Messi as the tournament's leading scorer and making it four goals in the last seven trips to Europe for him. His response to the reaction he had provoked in Roma's players and crowd was of most profound significance.
"His header was absolutely fantastic, his spring and courage to go in front of the defender," his manager said. "I think the defender thought he was going to get it. It was the spring [that did it]. It was a centre forward's header. It reminds me of myself."
But even Ferguson would admit that Ronaldo has long since surpassed his own goal-poaching prime at Rangers. He deployed Ronaldo as a centre-forward here, with Wayne Rooney operating down the left; stick Ronaldo in the thick of things and watch him flourish. It was a good decision from Ferguson because in an opening spell during which United struggled to fire, Ronaldo had found the going tough.
First, a dummy failed to fool David Pizarro, then Rodrigo Taddei's firm challenge left him punching the pitch in frustration. There was a kick in the foot from the Frenchman Philippe Mexes for good measure and then a lecture by the referee after the Portuguese protested a decision. But just when it seemed that this was destined to be a severely difficult night, Ronaldo conjured his goal.
Rooney's slightly over-hit pass to Paul Scholes was collected and deftly chipped into the box by the midfielder and Ronaldo came thundering in to meet it with a firm header, injuring himself in the process. "Ronaldo's goal changed the game for us," Ferguson said.
Roma hit back hard after the break, desperate to save the tie, but Ferguson was provided with more evidence of the strength he has in depth. He had been without Nemanja Vidic from midway through the first half, after the centre-half had fallen in agony, clutching his thigh after an aerial challenge with Mirko Vucinic. That meant John O'Shea had to come off the bench to play at centre half, but he fitted seamlessly into the backline. The weakened rearguard prevailed during 15 minutes of intense Roma pressure after the break.
"We rode our luck in the second half and they had their chances," said Ferguson. "Little breaks in football matches that you sometimes get [make a difference]."
Edwin van der Sar leapt brilliantly to his left to save from a Vucinic header, Rio Ferdinand being on hand to scoop the ball clear. Ferguson said of his goalkeeper: "He has had one or two injuries just recently which have given us a bit of concern but he has come through tonight."
Ferguson also had the Roma defender Christian Panucci to thank for skying a shot over the bar from six yards and after that the home side's heart seemed to go. It was on 65 minutes that the victory was secured, when Brown swept a cross high over the Roma area and Park Ji-Sung – whose selection for a first European start, down the right flank, was the surprise of the United line-up – nodded it back from an unfeasibly acute angle and in the direction of Rooney. The home goalkeeper, Doni, seemed to have the ball within his grasp but somehow he did not secure it and Rooney was on hand to drive the ball home from a few yards out.
The effect on United was palpable, with Park again providing for Rooney whose cut-back to Michael Carrick was fired high and wide. Ronaldo also forced Doni to touch a shot onto the post and wide.
Ferguson was then confident enough to deploy Owen Hargreaves through the midfield and play Rooney and Ronaldo together up front. "They looked far more dangerous [together]," said the manager. "I should have done it earlier." Needless to say, Ferguson insisted he would not take the return match for granted, with Francesco Totti back from injury for the Italian side, but he will be confident. "We have to earn the right to be in the semi-final and hopefully we can do that," he said. "Totti is an inspirational figure for Roma and we hope Old Trafford on a European night will be ready for it."
Vidic will undergo tests today on his knee injury. "We pray it is not serious as he is such a vital part of our team," said Ferguson.
An absence of violence between fans was an added bonus – all in all it was a night to remember.
Roma (4-2-3-1): Doni; Cassetti, Mexes, Panucci, Tonetto (Cicinho, 69); De Rossi, Aquilani (Esposito, 76); Taddei (Giuly, 59), Pizarro, Mancini; Vucinic. Substitutes not used: Curci (gk), Antunes, Ferrari, Brighi
Manchester United (4-5-1): Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic (O'Shea, 34), Evra; Park, Carrick, Scholes, Anderson (Hargreaves, 55), Rooney (Tevez, 84); Ronaldo. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Giggs, Pique, Silvestre.
Referee: F De Bleeckere (Belgium).
Barcelona win away, page 51