Manchester United 2 Portsmouth 0: Ronaldo's dazzling dead-ball mastery to live long in the Old Trafford memory

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The Independent Online

There will be enough emotion washing through Old Trafford next week to hold off on too much talk of Munich just yet, but when The Spinners' Mick Groves braved the water sprinkler to sing about Sir Matt Busby's late lamented "masters of their trade" on the pitch at half-time it was hard to avoid the sense that the words befitted Sir Alex Ferguson's side justas much as they reclaimed top spot in the Premier League.

United had just delivered probably their most complete period of football of this season; 45 minutes in which it hardly seemed possible that only eight clear chances had accrued from a labyrinth of exchanged passes and precision balls through the centre. And at the heart of it all yet again was Cristiano Ronaldo, for whom comparisons with George Best are becoming less and less far-fetched. His two goals – a pass under David James after Nani's lofted return pass, and a free-kick which his manager later declared the finest he had seen in the Premier League – now leaves him just 11 short of Best's 40-year-old United record of 32 league goals in a season for a winger.

Ferguson's analysis is that Ronaldo's strike rate from free-kicks is better than David Beckham's and he seemed to suggest after this game that Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona pale by comparison, too. "It was within two or three inches of the junction of post and bar," Ferguson said of last night's kick, dispatched with dip and six inches of bend after the midfielder's customary Jonny Wilkinson-style preparations. "No goalkeeper in the world is going to stop that."

Ferguson admits he now disappears for a cup of tea while Ronaldo and a few others practise their kicks. He does not think Ronaldo can score 30 league goals this season but don't bet on it. The Portuguese, starting for only the second time as a striker here, has scored 27 goals in his last 24 games in all competitions.

But he was only part of a story of total domination which threw Portsmouth's seven wins on the road into some kind of contrast and, with reports of a £60m buy-out looming for the club, showed the gulf between United on their day and other European challengers. Wayne Rooney's work rate remains by far the greater of the two and Old Trafford was collectively willing a goal for a player who cannot seem to find any share of Ronaldo's luck and now has 17 fewer than his team-mate. When Ferguson engineered a joint departure for them, it was the Englishman they were singing for.

Rooney might have scored twice. He mishit a shot when Patrice Evra's short pass teed him up in the first half and could not find the power on a lob to send it inside the post after an Edwin van der Sar punt sent him past Sol Campbell after the break.

There were other contributions. Ferguson mentioned Park Ji Sung, a squad player whose presence revealed that United were keeping something in reserve for Tottenham on Saturday. But Paul Scholes, starting for the first time in three months after knee surgery, also demonstrated in over an hour's football that he seemingly needs no time to acclimatise. Fittingly, it was he who started the move which made the first goal.

Ferguson was astonished his side scored only twice and they would have had more, were it not for David James, seeking to convince the watching Fabio Capello that he is worth taking a punt on at the age of 37. He was outstanding on his 500th league outing, but his defence was overrun, despite Glen Johnson's tackle preventing Ronaldo completing a first-half hat-trick.

James could only shake his head in resignation when Ronaldo sent in his mighty free-kick – awarded after Campbell fouled the Portuguese five yards outside the area. Ronaldo simply caused panic whenever he touched the ball. Another free-kick, after a second uncompromising challenge by Sean Davis on Scholes for which Davis was lucky to avoid a card, saw Ronaldo beat the wall again. But James parried and Johnson gratefully cleared.

There was no second half let-up. James did well to block from Park as he ran through and then from Nani on the rebound. He also saved well from Carlos Tevez late on and saw Anderson poke the rebound wide of the upright.

"If you get goals it takes pressure off to a degree," said Portsmouth's assistant manager, Joe Jordan, in a vain attempt to make sense of it all. But Portsmouth never looked like punctuating this United exhibition with any such thing.

Goals: Ronaldo (10) 1-0; Ronaldo (13) 2-0.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Scholes (Anderson, 62), Carrick, Park; Ronaldo (Hargreaves, 74), Rooney (Tevez, 74). Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), O'Shea.

Portsmouth (4-4-2): James; Johnson, Campbell, Distin (Hreidarsson, h-t), Pamarot; Lauren (Mvuemba, h-t), Davis, Diarra, Kranjcar; Baros (Hughes, 78), Mwaruwari. Substitutes not used: Begovic (gk), Mendes.

Referee: M Atkinson (West Yorkshire).

Booked: Portsmouth Pamarot.

Man of the match: Ronaldo.

Attendance: 75,415.