Ronaldinho shows Ferguson what he has been missing

Rejuvenated Brazilian was a transfer target the United manager failed to land

Before the match, he had talked about the player he didn't want to lose. "I think he is the best player in the world but then again I'm biased." But Cristiano Ronaldo would probably not even have arrived in the frantic summer of 2003 had not another player Sir Alex Ferguson coveted slipped through his grasp.

Much of the lustre Ronaldinho held back then has been lost since; so much so that Ferguson has not even mentioned him in the past few days when asked to assess the Milanese threat. But the Brazilian, whose decision seven years ago that his future lay in Barcelona set in chain Ronaldo's £12.5m move to Old Trafford – in the summer that a certain Beckham was shipped out of Old Trafford – has been quietly rehabilitating himself of late.

Ferguson was served a half reminder of what he missed when he watched from the stand as Ronaldinho's divine left-to-right pass set up Alexandre Pato to score for Milan at Udinese five days ago. But the threat was there right in front of his dug out last night and all the old agonies would have been revisited in the moment that the 29-year-old seized on Patrice Evra's miscued clearance to fire in a deflected right-foot shot after three minutes.

The goal was marginally luck, Michael Carrick's deflection proving ruinous for Edwin van der Sar, but what followed in a first half as awful for Ferguson as anything he has seen since last summer's Champions League final against Barcelona in Roma, was sublime.

The United manager had decided to send out his Brazilian right back Rafael, 10 years Ronaldinho's junior, to face him and it was a man against a boy in every way. There were multitudes of evidence of this but few examples more subtle than the heel-to-heel flick which the world became so acquainted with in the 2003/4 season, for which Ronaldinho carried off the first of his two Fifa World Player of the Year awards (the second followed the next season). Rafael was utterly deceived by it and so too when the boy from Porto Alegre placed a ball between his legs seconds later.

The advice Rafael's manager must have offered would surely have been "don't dive in" but by the quarter of a hour mark he was flustered enough to do so. He promptly felled his opponent with an undetected kick. Rio Ferdinand also escaped with a clip at the Brazilian's heels – marginally outside the area – though there was not even a cynical way to disguise the skill which allowed him, back to goal, to thread a ball backwards between Paul Scholes and Evra, race onto it and force Van der Sar to palm away right handed.

Here was why Ferguson wanted this player so much. "The player didn't want to come to us and we didn't offer enough money," then chief executive Peter Kenyon explained on United's pre-season tour of America in the summer the club lost him – the first time United had been so publicly rejected by one of the world's best players.

Ronaldinho faded badly at the Camp Nou and became another story of Brazilian brilliance wedded more to lifestyle than football. But the 4-3-3 formation Leonardo has introduced since Carlo Ancelotti's departure has restored him to the formation he knew in that Barcelona pomp and he may yet be restored to Brazil's squad for the World Cup.

Amid such a presence, the one player Ferguson was willing – nothing less than anxious – to lose seven summers back offered little. The arced free-kick for Ronaldinho's goal was pretty much the sum of it for Beckham. Not enough in his 72 minutes of play, certainly, to instill any fear in Ferguson's heart for an undoubtedly emotional return to Old Trafford for a first competitive game since leaving the place.

"We move on in life. Different team different players that's what happens," Ferguson said of Beckham on Monday night and last night he could reflect on how Wayne Rooney, for the first time on the road in Europe, has filled the role Ronaldo did for so long. The return looks as though it could be a formality, but there may be the odd cold sweat about Ronaldinho before that game in three weeks.