James Lawton: Moment of virtuosity rescues unsatisfactory effort

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The Independent Football

Manchester United move on in pursuit of the second Champions League triumph that Sir Alex Ferguson craves with a growing passion, but it was the news from Milan that caused the biggest stir.

Arsenal's ejection of the reigning champions smacked of epoch-making ambition. United's victory was strangely unsatisfactory; it promised much but delivered only a bare essential. There was plenty of show, plenty of gusto, but not a whole lot of cold steel or vision.

It was another case of Cristiano Ronaldo's talent producing a result that might otherwise have been elusive. For much of the time he was as wasteful and self-indulgent as some of his team-mates, but he did find a moment of authentic penetration.

It meant that United were given the chance to regroup. But it is one which surely brings no guarantees.

There was plenty of early bluster from United, but Lyons absorbed it with a composure that made Rio Ferdinand's pre-match rhetoric seem more like a shout of warning than some confident reading of the future. Ferdinand had suggested that history might start to close in on his team with less than overwhelming approval if there was any repeat of the shocking denouement in Milan last season – and concern over such a prospect was beginning to grow at an alarming rate when Ronaldo quietened fears that this might be one of those nights when his twirls and step-overs promised a lot more than they delivered.

Lyons were increasingly buoyed by evidence that the 20-year-old striker Karim Benzema might just be worth something vaguely close to the spectacular assessments of their club president when Ronaldo explained why, behind all the flippancy and dry ice, he has alerted all of Europe, and especially Real Madrid, to his own value at the top end of the marketplace.

Ronaldo's goal was his latest reminder that at times he can produce unmatchable levels of touch and for a French team who had begun to settle on the ball with both rhythm and imagination the effect was of a hard and beautiful one-two combination.

Their right-back, Fran-çois Clerc, one moment had control of a ball played into the six-yard box by Anderson. In the next he had not been beaten but engulfed by the Portuguese, who swept beyond both him and the goalkeeper Grégory Coupet. It was a blow which left Ferguson munching on his chewing gum with exaggerated satisfaction. However, the old war chief knew too much about the vagaries of the European game to assume that one moment of virtuosity would be enough to guarantee progress into the quarter-finals.

Ronaldo's thrust was brilliantly opportunistic but unfortunately for his manager's peace of mind it did little to build his team's confidence – or undermine Lyons'.

Indeed, there were periods in the second half when the brooding menace of Benzema began to suggest a more potent threat than any of the elaborate, and increasingly futile, flourish of such as Nani and Anderson and, it had to be said, Ronaldo. Anderson was withdrawn in favour of the first-leg hero Carlos Tevez, but this did nothing to staunch the flow of the visitors. This had one hugely menacing moment when Benzema ran powerfully with the ball before playing in substitute Kader Keita, who shot low against the near post.

Where the United deficit was becoming progressively more evident was in the department of creation, where Lyons were especially well served by the Brazilian Juninho, whose promptings gave his team a shape and a steady supply of possession in potentially dangerous areas. Indeed, such was the French ability to hold the ball, you had to wonder why Paul Scholes' recent revival in form had not earned a call from the bench. Ferguson had, after all, made the extraordinary statement that if United reach the final Scholes would be the one player who would get the vote on pure sentiment.

Sentimental Ferguson? It seemed like something of a reach when he kept the old hero on the bench despite a chronic lack of supply to Rooney, whose best opportunity came from a back pass by Hatem Ben Arfa. He was so startled he could do no more than shoot straight at Coupet.

In the end, though, the French menace was never fulfilled and Benzema remained a weapon that promised rather than produced the destruction with which United flirted at times with rather too much abandon and wastefulness.

The debt they have to Ronaldo is as huge as at any point in the last two seasons, but any urge to celebrate his so often irrepressible talent has surely to be restrained. This was a night when United had to reflect that, for all their ability, they never truly took hold of a match that could easily have cast a major shadow over their season.

Ronaldo was the hero, but it wasn't a night to put anybody up in lights. Better surely to shine them on some worrying deficiencies.

James Lawton has been shortlisted for Sports Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards