Ronaldo reaps the rewards of feeling at home in England
Sunday 15 March 2009
Two dramatic nights of Champions' League football last week confirmed that all four Premier League representatives will continue to carry the flag into the quarter-finals at least. Whether it is really the flag of St George or, as Fifa's Sepp Blatter would prefer, the Premier League pennant – "I don't know if it's English football," he said of the leading clubs in Manchester on Wednesday – is not the issue under discussion here.
What was interesting was the impression, after spending those two nights at Anfield and then Old Trafford, that further domination of Europe's leading club competition by Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal will convince an increasing number of players that England is the country in which their bread is best buttered.
United's Cristiano Ronaldo, for instance, emerging from the holders' dressing-room after a comfortable victory over Internazionale, did not look or sound like a man desperate to be associated with the Real Madrid team humbled so comprehensively by Liverpool the previous night. Doubtless there will be another Ronaldo-for-Madrid saga to come, especially with potential new presidents of the club having to make wild promises about whom they will sign, but the World Player of the Year did seem genuine in his appreciation of United and of English football, as well as his own good fortune.
He should have had a word on the way out with Patrick Vieira – surprisingly selected for Inter, then replaced at half-time after a wretched 45 minutes – about the wisdom of leaving the Premier League.
Having sought confirmation that Vieira's former club Arsenal had won their penalty shoot-out in Rome, Ronaldo said in his improving English: "It's really fantastic to see four English teams in the quarter-finals again. The Premier League is in my opinion the best league in the world and the most competitive."
As for the prospect of becoming the first side in 19 years to become champions of Europe for two seasons running: "We need to take it game by game, we have a long way to go. But the team's more experienced, more mature, we are the holders of the Champions' League and we want to win it again.
"To be honest, I don't care who we have to play against," he added. "They will all be tough. In my opinion Manchester United is still the best team in Europe, but we have to play good to win the competition because the others are good and you have to respect the opponents."
It was unrealistic to expect a season as sensational as the last one from the Portuguese, when his extraordinary total of 42 goals helped bring about a League and European double, plus a clutch of individual awards. Yet the firm header that sealed victory over Inter took him to 17, still ahead of those other prolific non-strikers Frank Lampard (who also decided to stay in England when he might have been in Jose Mourinho's Inter team) and Steven Gerrard. It was the latest performance to confirm that he, like United, is also benefiting from experience and maturity. "Individual awards are nice but the most important is the collective," he said. "I'd prefer to win the Champions' League and FA Cup and Premier League."
And his personal contribution? "I feel very good, I'm 100 per cent. The tough thing is from now, the big games and the big decisions are coming and Cristiano Ronaldo is ready. I'm happy, it's the most competitive league and I feel happy here." It was even possible to forgive the lapse into speaking about himself in the third person.
The night before, Gerrard had been less concerned about who Liverpool might draw next than avoiding having to play the second leg on Wednesday 15 April, the 20th anniversary of Hillsborough. The Liverpool captain lost a 10-year-old cousin in that tragedy and would like Uefa to show some understanding in arranging the quarter-final dates.
"I don't think we should have to play on a day like that, it should be a day when we remember people that we lost," he said. "We'll have to wait and see what happens, but hopefully there's a way round it. If we win, we'll dedicate it to those people."
The Last Eight
England: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United.
Spain: Barcelona, Villarreal. Portugal: Porto.
Germany: Bayern Munich.
Quarter-final draw will be made on Friday at 11am. Ties to be played on 7-8 and 14-15 April.
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