It might not quite have been a beating over the head with a baton – the image his manager had used here to describe the attacks he comes under – but Cristiano Ronaldo left El Madigral last night with stud marks and a cut above the left knee to go with his side's qualification from Group E, leading Sir Alex Ferguson to claim that there is a systematic, collective attempt among teams to injure him.
An ugly, studs-up lash at Ronaldo with his left foot earned defender Joan Capdevila a justifiable straight red card on an evening in which another two of his team-mates were booked for inflicting more of the same on the player. The referee, Roberto Rosetti had provided the kind of protection which Ronaldo "may not have got in England" Ferguson said, returning to a theme he has aired before. But the Manchester United manager seems to have seen in the course of games in which crowds and players get to the 23-year-old signs of a more malign and calculated campaign than the practice of just kicking a good player. "What's happening is systematic," Ferguson said. "It's a tactic. One has one foul, another has another foul. Someone else has another. Eventually the referee thinks he's diving all the time, the crowd's screaming. So that's the problem – systematic fouling of him."
The number of Villareal players booked for their challenges on Ronaldo suggested that he had a point. So did the sly way Ariel Ibagaza pinched his neck in the course of yanking him to his feet seven minutes in.
It was one of those nights – sometimes reserved for occasions when they don't play well – when Ferguson had criticism to impart to many. Wayne Rooney was a more unexpected recipient, the perpetrator, Ferguson said, of a second half dive in search of a penalty when Fabricio Fuentes had clearly not clipped him.
"It's uncharacteristic of him," Ferguson said. "He thought he was going to be challenged and he thought he was going to get a penalty kick and he's made the most of it. He says himself he's apologised." And on the last point, Ferguson could not resist a dig at Robert Pires, perceived by some as a diver at Arsenal and the perpetrator of some penalty box theatrics here. "I think he's been watching Pires too much," Ferguson said. [Rooney's] apologised to the Villareal players. You never see Pires doing that do you? Bloody hell."
But Ronaldo is the subject of enduring debate. He arrived here with the cuts incurred before limping off Villa Park four days ago and picked up where he had left off there. Though vastly more sinned against than sinner, he is easy to needle and that makes him a target for opponents and fans. Ariel Ibagaza extracted a swipe from him after that sneaky pinch and he was riled as both Sebastian Eguren and Javi Venta were booked for two of several unsophisticated hacks inside 30 minutes.
He is operating in a perpetual state of agitation – reluctant to accept a handshake; ready to take the extra, theatrical roll when fouled. He was also quite prepared in the second half here to stand, hands on hips, near the partisan Villareal's partisan Frente Amarillo 'ultras', eyeballing the assistant referee who adjudged him to have fouled Capdevila. After removing the ball to where he thought the kick should be taken, he was booked for dissent.
For his part, Pellegrini believes that it is Ronaldo's style of play – the word the Spanish use for it is encarar and it translates as challenging "face on" – was the cause of the bookings, though Marcos Senna's personalised attack on the player before the game suggested there is no love lost.
But it was also a fact that Ronaldo, alone, carried United's creative threat. The first half had been insipid until he latched onto a knock down from Rooney, lashing a right foot shot which Diego Lopez leapt to palm, two handed, onto his crossbar. The low, dipping free-kick Ronaldo won on the edge of the area after Eguren's foul was also palmed around Lopez's right hand post. He ran free into the box again after the interval, forcing Lopez again to palm away.
It is time for his compatriot, Nani, to show more signs of the invention. Anderson also, who wears the makings off a beard these days but shows scant that he is growing at United role. It was Tomasz Kuszcak who demonstrated his worth, as the Yellow Submarine's attacking threat surfaced intermittently. He did well to beat away a shot from Santi Cazorla which swerved left to right and pushed away a near post shot from former United striker Giuseppe Rossi.
United held on, as did Villareal – and for all their sins, they too have qualified for the group stage.
Villarreal (4-4-2): Diego Lopez; Javi Venta, Gonzalo Rodriguez, Fuentes, Capdevila; Santi Cazorla, Senna (Bruno, 46), Eguren, Pires (Mati Fernandez, 65); Rossi (Franco, 79), Ibagaza. Substitutes not used: Viera (gk), Edmilson, Cygan, Angel Lopez.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Kuszczak; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Ronaldo, Fletcher (Gibson, 80), Carrick (Tevez, 86), Nani (Park, 84); Anderson; Rooney. Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Giggs, Vidic, Rafael.
Referee: R Rosetti (Italy).Reuse content