Manchester derby: Ronaldo has the stuff of legends

As a city prepares to remember the Busby Babes, the red half has a hero to put alongside the very best of them. By Steve Tongue
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Playing for the shirt will take on a special meaning for both teams in this afternoon's Manchester derby as they commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Munich air crash in kit for once bereft of taste-free advertising logos. The modern football superstar may be a difficult creature to impress, but even Cristiano Ronaldo, an early favourite to retain last season's double Footballer of the Year title, appeared genuinely touched by a sense of occasion when he looked ahead on Friday.

"I'm very excited about the game and keeping this shirt," he said in his improving English. "I've said I don't change this one. I have some shirts, from my first hat-trick [against Newcastle] and the FA Cup final, but I want this shirt, to be a part of the history of this club."

In this of all weeks, it is important to avoid hyperbole in assessing the stature of any United player, but it is fair to say that after four-and-a-half seasons, Ronaldo is writing his way into the Old Trafford annals. To those worried that he might spoil the story by rushing off to Real Madrid or elsewhere, he insists: "I want to stay here more years because I love the club, the football and the English people."

Consider a scoring record of 13 in 10 games, contributing to a total of 27 this season; in seeking for a winger or midfielder who scored at such a rate, the only name that comes to mind is, significantly, George Best. Frank Lampard's record of 16 in the Premier League was beaten last season, and Ronaldo then eclipsed his own best of 17 last month.

Then there is the sheer style in which so many of them have been secured, whether from those unique dipping free-kicks with torso bent low over the ball or an electrifying burst through the opposing defence, with or without a stepover or three.

The theatrical flourishes that infuriated coaches and team-mates as well as opponents in earlier days have now been tempered to good effect in favour of something more direct, but they remain a testament to courage, risking the sort of retribution that City's Michael Ball dished out with a shocking stamp to the stomach at Eastlands last May. Any such brutality would be as out of place today as a single voice raised in the minute's silence before the game, which both clubs privately fear as a result of thoughtless fixture scheduling.

Sir Alex Ferguson admitted on Friday: "When I saw what the fixture was, I said, 'Who the hell chose that'?" The answer, presumably, is that nobody even considered the matter, which shows that the Premier League could usefully spend more time studying dates in this country than in Japan or Australia.

For better or worse, a derby day it is, and as Ronaldo says: "An important day, every player appreciates this. To be honest, when I came I didn't know about Munich, but in my first year some players told me and I checked a few videos. I saw an amazing team with great spirit."

It is not difficult to imagine the Portuguese being taken aside by his captain, Gary Neville, a proud Mancunian who will be desperately disappointed not to play today because of his ankle injury and who says: "It will be a really emotional day but we have to play the football match and we have to win. That's the most important thing at this club. Because the club always goes on."

When the two teams met at Eastlands in the third game of the season, Geovanni's goal took City briefly to the top of the table and condemned United to 16th place. Within a month, Ferguson's team had overtaken their neighbours, who have now slipped to a more realistic seventh position – their lowest of the season – after winning one game in the past eight.

"Derby games can be difficult," Ferguson said. "City fans have a part to play and City as a club have done their very best. Hopefully it'll go off well and we can get on with the game of football."

He must do without Wayne Rooney, who is suspended after a foolish dive at Tottenham last week when things were going against United. Ferguson was grateful to salvage a point at the end, though it cost the League leadership, but with Arsenal playing Blackburn tomorrow that position can be regained today. It would be hugely appropriate.

In the much longer term there are reputations to be made forever. Ronaldo says: "Of course I want young lads to remember Cristiano, Giggsy, everyone. Maybe in 50 years' time another guy has my position and says, 'Cristiano was a great player'." There is every chance of it.