Sporting Lisbon 0, Manchester United 1: Ronaldo propels United in pursuit of history

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For once the script went to plan, and there was barely a dry eye in the house. There will certainly be none in the Madeira home in which Cristiano Ronaldo grew up after this. On his return to Sporting Lisbon, the club which took his raw talent and moulded him into a starlet, Ronaldo scored the goal which brought up Manchester United's century of victories in this competition.

Yet despite this devastating blow to Sporting's hopes of progressing in the Champions League, Ronaldo was still accorded an ovation when he left the field. Such is the love his rare talent inspires, and the humility with which he displayed it last night.

The tie marked the beginning of United's quest to honour the 50th anniversary of the Munich disaster, and the 40th year since Sir Matt Busby finally won the European Cup, by lifting this season's trophy in Moscow come May. It is a romantic idea but Sir Alex Ferguson knows better than most that football deals only in the hard realities. He was supposed to mark his subsequently revoked retirement by winning the Champions League in his Glasgow hometown in 2002. The following year the final was at Old Trafford, the perfect venue to celebrate Ferguson's decision to remain at the club. Both dreams foundered.

So Ferguson was not trusting to fate last night, especially after the vagaries of injury had robbed him of Owen Hargreaves. Instead he was putting his faith in his players, as he has done, with considerable success, for the last 21 years.

Last night that meant trusting Wayne Rooney who made his first appearance since breaking a bone in his foot on the opening day of the domestic season. Nani, like Ronaldo a graduate of the Sporting academy, was also included.

The Portuguese lined up on the flanks as the points of a V formation with Michael Carrick at the base and Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs along the respective arms. This left Rooney to lead the line, not a role he generally seems happy in.

United's shape had the effect of giving Miguel Veloso, Sporting's deep midfielder, huge amounts of space in which to play. Had he been Andrea Pirlo, Milan's playmaker who occupies a similar area of the pitch, United could have been cut to ribbons. Fortunately Veloso's distribution was as poor as his team-mates'.

The pitch did not help: it soon looked like a crumpled rug making passing and dribbling difficult. The biggest bonus for United was the performance of Herbert Fandel, who seemed intent on disproving Ferguson's pre-match reservations about him. Not only did the referee wave away most of Sporting's free-kick appeals he booked Leandro Romagnoli for diving. Nani was also cautioned, but deservedly so for a clumsy tackle.

The game continued to meander along after the break before igniting unexpectedly just after the hour mark. United for once strung a series of passes together with Carrick doing well as they worked the ball up the pitch before, via Rooney and Scholes, switching play left to right. The latter found Wes Brown in space on the right. Brown has struggled to replicate Gary Neville's attacking input but, this time, he delivered the perfect cross, which was met by a well-placed falling header from Ronaldo.

The winger jumped to his feet, began to celebrate, then remembered where he was and quietly accepted the congratulations of his team-mates before applauding the home support. A wave of applause rang around the ground in response. It was a remarkable moment.

Nine minutes later Ronaldo was again the centre of attention as he skipped forward, eluding several challenges, before finding Nani. For a second Sporting graduate to score would surely be asking too much. It was, as Stojkovic parried his shot.

United seemed on course for their fourth successive 1-0 win but there was nearly a sting in the tale. With 11 minutes remaining Veloso returned a half-cleared corner, Tonel headed low towards goal, and watched in despair as Van der Sar made an excellent save. The ball fell to Yannick Djalo, who blazed over.

Louis Saha, on for Rooney, should have settled the tie late on but hit Ronaldo's pass over. It was the latter's last act. Ferguson then withdrew him to a standing ovation. United could have done with Ronaldo's ball-carrying skills staying on, but perhaps the Godfather is an old romantic after all.