James Lawton: Ronaldo must beat the best before he can be put in the same league as Best

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The Independent Football

The word on Cristiano Ronaldo is becoming implacable. He is better than Denis Law and Sir Bobby Charlton and closing fast on George Best, says another Old Trafford legend, Pat Crerand.

It's all very well, but wouldn't it be better and certainly more rational to await the odd epic performance in something like a big game against the best opposition in Europe? Or maybe a World Cup final?

Or, come to think of it, the outcome of Grand Slam Sunday?

No one can argue seriously against the fact that once again Ronaldo seems certain to be anointed as almost everyone's idea of Footballer of the Year. But then some notable voices, led by Crerand, are beginning to say, he is maybe also the player for the ages.

It is an assumption that flows naturally from an extraordinary array of skill – and power – and with this week's milestone marking the surpassing of Best's record of 32 goals in a season, one that has never been more difficult to challenge.

Difficult, no doubt, but is it impossible as we go into the weekend when analysis of such key performers as Ronaldo and Fernando Torres at Old Trafford and, at Stamford Bridge, Cesc Fabregas and Joe Cole, will surely be microscopic?

Perhaps not, at least not utterly. The truth is we still await the answer to a question that has always been required, and surely always will be, of those upon whom the ultimate praise is heaped.

Does the ultimate praise really square with ultimate achievement?

We will know a little better if Ronaldo scores his first ever goal against Liverpool tomorrow as a prelude to an equally vital opening of his account against Chelsea in a few weeks' time. The unpalatable truth for those who have already deified the gilded youth from Madeira, is that while he can bend it against the likes of Bolton almost at will, in 18 games against Chelsea and Liverpool he has fired only blanks. Against the other elite team, Arsenal, his record is a respectable, if less than phenomenal, three goals in 10 games.

The best definition of greatness is that it is displayed when the opposition is toughest and the pressure is at its highest. In these strict terms, Ronaldo has nothing in his portfolio that begins to compare, say, with Fabregas's precocious masterpiece at San Siro recently. It's true that Ronaldo emerged immensely in the 2006 World Cup semi-final against France – but he did not display a cutting edge.

While Crerand, a most distinguished team-mate of the three players generally acknowledged to be the greatest in the history of Manchester United, Best, Charlton and Law, says that Ronaldo already outranks all but Best, and that in a couple of years he may well supplant the Irish maestro, history does demand a classic caution.

Without it, we are running with the spectacle of the moment rather than the achievements that last for ever. The important rule declares that you cannot declare a winner before the course is run.

Best, Law and Charlton ran their course – and performed as brilliantly in Europe as they did at all levels of domestic and international football. Best, as we have said before but cannot forget as plans for the coronation of Ronaldo are so advanced, was four years younger than the Portuguese star is today when he produced arguably the greatest single performance in the history of the European Cup, the astonishing tour de force which destroyed Benfica, one of the great teams of the Sixties, in front of their own people.

Two years later Best, along with Charlton, was a vital factor in the winning of the European Cup.

Of course we must praise Ronaldo for the extraordinary life and consistency he has produced in United's defence of their title. But we also have to be true to reality, both in the profile of Ronaldo's career and the achievements of those who, according to such a substantial judge as Crerand, have already been engulfed by a flood of Portuguese virtuosity.

If we do come to praise Ronaldo now, and only the crabbiest of spirits could deny him large bundles of it, we do have to remember that he is yet to fulfil all of the demands we have always applied to the likes of Best and Charlton and Law.

Should Ronaldo do to the vastly improved Liverpool what he has done so relentlessly to teams like Bolton and Newcastle, a significant box will have been ticked. But there are others that have been waiting some time for the formalities without which Ronaldo might just inhabit the limbo of eternal promise created by statistics and style which lack a hard core of major achievement. Included among the missing boxes is an outstanding performance in Europe, something to erase the memory of his virtual non-combatant status in last season's European semi-final in the San Siro.

No, there is no questioning the momentum Ronaldo has supplied to United's last two seasons, but as the votes for him pile up what would be the reaction if he is again less than dominant at the climax of the season, as he was last time with his near total failure to make an impact in Milan and then in the Cup final against Chelsea?

How would this be balanced should Fabregas reapply the influence that gave Arsenal such a sensational start to their season and was so extraordinary in the defeat of Milan. Or what if Cole rescued his embattled manager, Avram Grant, with a life-giving defeat of Arsenal tomorrow? Still another potential complication: Torres, so brilliantly mastered by Rio Ferdinand at Anfield, reasserting his phenomenal scoring touch at Old Trafford and giving Liverpool fresh impetus in their pursuit of a second European Cup in four years.

Liverpool represent a huge threat to United if they can do to Ronaldo what they have always done, subdue him, tell him early and for the rest of the match that it isn't a day for easy pickings.

It makes a weekend of delicious anticipation, at least when you have flushed away the rank behaviour of Ashley Cole and some of his team-mates in Chelsea's mid-week pratfall at White Hart Lane.

If the sharpest of focus is applied, inevitably, to Ronaldo, there is a nagging suspicion that he may well be eclipsed by the time the sun goes down at Stamford Bridge. Fabregas maybe poses the greatest threat, even though his season has been relatively fallow since its magnificent launch. He has still managed to remind us of a precious facility. It is, despite his youth, the ability to take hold of a specific challenge and meet every demand it makes.

He did that on the way to Arsenal's European Cup final two seasons ago, against Juventus, when he proved to Arsène Wenger that he was a player and a man enough to carry his club forward in the absence of Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira. He reannounced that promise at San Siro. Tomorrow he can confirm it once more in what could easily prove Arsenal's most important game since they lost to Barcelona in Paris two years ago.

Ronaldo's warmest admirers have placed on him a rather different obligation. It is to prove that he can play the best as well as he does the mediocre. This isn't to snipe at a gorgeous talent. It is just to ask of him something Georgie Best delivered as a matter of course. Crerand once said Best gave defenders twisted blood. Unfortunately, it seems, he couldn't also bestow unskewered perspective on some of those who saw him do it.

Ashton's authority needlessly tied down by tangled chain of command

Whatever you think of Brian Ashton's performance as head coach of England's rugby team, it is running comfortably ahead of that of his employers, the Rugby Union.

The proposal to appoint the great player Martin Johnson as team manager, on the recommendation of Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby, with Brian Ashton staying on as a coach with compromised powers of selection despite being pledged support, is messy and absurd.

Winning teams, at any level, do not look to a dog's breakfast of command. They do not need elite directors, team managers and head coaches fighting for their little bits of the empire. They want someone who leads, who is clearly the man empowered to both shape and pick the team.

All the other demands of administration and scouting and planning and development can be delegated. But the one role that can never be shared is that of leader. Players need to know who is the boss. It is the oxygen of team building.

Despite his lack of coaching experience, Johnson has enough natural authority as a World Cup-winning captain of immense character and force, to tackle the job. It is just unfortunate – and symptomatic of an essentially unprofessional organisation – that is his appointment is bound to look more the result of a conspiracy than cool judgement.

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