Admit it: he's been brilliant. If last season was about Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, then this season has really mainly been about Ronaldo. His goal tally piling up game after game, the posturing around free-kicks and then the dispatching of those free-kicks, cannonball-style, into the top corner. The expectation that something will happen every time he gets the ball; the anticipation of having a real superstar on the pitch.
Manchester United's 10th Premier League title, the class of 2008, will be remembered as one man's season above all. Naturally not every English football fan likes Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro but it is difficult to dislike what he stands for. And what he stands for is the timeless ethos of being able to dribble a ball past an opponent, sometimes more than one opponent, and score goals. When you strip away the nonsense of the English game's never-ending hype, its greed and – to paraphrase Roy Keane – its spivs and bluffers, isn't that basically what everyone turns up to see? Premier League season 2007-08 belongs to a player of heart-stopping talent and, whatever your loyalties, that is no bad thing.
How United won the League over the course of 38 games, how they amassed a goal difference 19 superior to their nearest rivals is a complicated story and thanks in no small part to Ronaldo's supporting cast: a manager who has broken through so many walls that nothing seems to deter him any more and a team that follows. But when you have a player with 40 goals and counting, 30 of them in the league, then you have a foundation upon which to build something special.
Ronaldo has still never scored against Chelsea, which will probably be held against him at some point, but he has scored against just about everyone else who matters. He scored home and away against Arsenal this season; he scored at Old Trafford against Liverpool in the 3-0 win in March and scored both goals when United beat Everton at home in December. When United have needed to break down teams at Old Trafford, especially teams who have come unapologetically to defend for a draw, it has been Ronaldo who, more often than not, has found the way of unlocking them.
Do not underestimate the importance of that to United. Traditionally they have slipped up every now and then at home against teams who defend and strike on the break, and losing too many points that way this year could have been disastrous, given the closeness of the title race. If you want to wallow in the best of Ronaldo's goals, then there are plenty to choose from. That free-kick at Old Trafford against Portsmouth in January: 30 yards out, top corner and David James never moved. There have been variations on a similar theme against Bolton (home) and Sunderland (away). Or for the connoisseurs of improvisation there was the flick with his instep against Aston Villa (home) through a crowded box.
United seized first place from Arsenal for the final time in mid-March after Arsenal had drawn with Middlesbrough, their fourth consecutive draw in a debilitating run of five games without a win when the wheels came off their title challenge. But the notion that United chased down a big Arsenal lead in the table, the same way they ate into Newcastle's advantage 12 years ago, is a myth. Yes, they pursued Arsène Wenger's side for a long time over the course of the season, but the gap was never more than five points after September and only once did it reach that margin since the turn of the year.
United were last five points behind Arsenal when they lost the Munich disaster memorial home game to Manchester City, 2-1 on 10 February – one of their five defeats in the league all season. That day Ronaldo was well off the pace, so too the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Wes Brown, who have both been central to the success of United's season. Sir Alex Ferguson would probably shrug and say that these things happen in the course of the season, but they have happened less often with United for good reason.
When Ferguson waded into the transfer market last summer to buy Carlos Tevez, Anderson, Luis Nani and Owen Hargreaves the immediate question was: who makes way? Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, perhaps even Michael Carrick, too. But Ferguson does not buy like other managers to replace specific individuals immediately, he seems to work on the basis that if a player is good enough for United then the hierarchy of the squad will take care of matters. That he will sink or swim against his peers, that there are no tidy endings to careers or neat replacements. And, despite a few ups and downs, all four of United's big-name purchases have been swimmers.
For the price United paid for the four, anything between £80m to £100m, you could be forgiven for thinking that is the least they could have expected. Nevertheless, the balance and options they have offered United must have been as good as Ferguson could have expected. Anderson's performance away against Liverpool in December stands out as the occasion he held his own against Steven Gerrard; Tevez's goals, including that equaliser against Blackburn last month, have been invaluable and Hargreaves is showing his versatility now at right-back, having chipped in a crucial winner against Arsenal. Nani is the rawest of the lot but, as the winner against Tottenham in August testifies, still no slouch.
Ahead of them is a new generation of senior players who have come to the fore to succeed such veterans as Giggs and Scholes. Carrick is one, having found the best use for his ability as midfielder who breaks up the play in front of the defence; Ferdinand has had arguably the best season of his career and Brown too has shown that there is a place for a more traditional, notably physical kind of defender. Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra are also of the age where Ferguson must have few worries in their positions for another four or five seasons.
Which leaves Rooney who, with 18 goals (12 in the league), his second Premier League winners' medal and the prospect of a Champions League final, cannot feel too sorry for himself. Nevertheless, he can be the spare chair of this United team, just as Gerrard was once moved around the Liverpool and England sides to accommodate lesser players who were not as versatile. Rooney, above all, makes United's occasional 4-6-0, strikerless formation work because of his hard work and adaptability across the front line. But he will always, you suspect, be most comfortable in a 4-4-2 formation alongside a strike partner who will play him in around the edge of the box.
Let loose on the break, as they were against Aston Villa on 29 March, Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez too were a joy to watch. Then they dismantled a team who were stretched and under pressure from the moment they fell behind, but United have been impressive in all sorts of situations this season. You could explain away every one of their five league defeats (Manchester City twice, West Ham, Bolton and Chelsea) as glitches of a sort apart from the one at Stamford Bridge. Ferguson's team selection that day notwithstanding, Chelsea do seem to have United's number, which will make it interesting when they meet in Moscow on 21 May.
Still, it is extraordinary that it was not until the eighth Premier League game, against Birmingham, that Ronaldo first scored for his club this season. He was sent off at Fratton Park on 15 August for headbutting Richard Hughes, an episode during which, Ferguson said at the time, Ronaldo had fallen prey to provocation. You could say he has been making amends ever since and it will be remembered as one of the great individual efforts of all time.Reuse content