Ronaldo's bizarre red card raises eyebrows

Manchester City 0 Manchester United 1

There have been plenty of people walking around Manchester with a flawed sense of perspective just lately. They include those fans who thought this match pitched the biggest club in the city against Manchester United. Joining them is the manager whose superlatives about Cristiano Ronaldo at the weekend placed the 23-year-old in a reference frame which included Johan Cruyff and Pele.

Ronaldo takes the headlines again today, just like he did last week when Sir Alex Ferguson said cynical opponents were metaphorically bashing him over the head with a baton, and just like he most probably will tomorrow by ending Manchester United's 40-year wait for their own European Footballer of the Year. But his dismissal, for an unfathomable two-handed volleyball punt in the six-yard box, is the latest in a series of theatrics which are raising serious questions about his mind for the title-retaining job in hand – and about his manager's latest claims about his greatness. There has always been something incendiary about Ronaldo – witness his straight red in the January 2006 derby match for a lunge at Andy Cole – but never such a continuous state of distraction.

Before all that, a moment's consideration for a real football story, because it screams out hypocrisy. Shaun Wright-Phillips, the best man on the field in the 151st Manchester derby, was hacked in a way which did for his free-flowing threat and saw no fewer than four United players – Darren Fletcher, Patrice Evra, Michael Carrick and Ronaldo – booked for fouls on him. The Blackburn manager, Mark Hughes, was diplomatic. "Shaun was the attacking threat for us and I would suggest that United felt [that] and fouled him in possession," he said. Ferguson, who gave us that baton imagery, would have been fulminating had Ronaldo received the same.

United's football did break through. There was Wayne Rooney's 100th career goal – a poacher's tap-in, a rarity for him, after Joe Hart had spilt a Michael Carrick shot into his path on 41 minutes. Also, a commanding performance from Patrice Evra which showed how far he has come since his disastrous debut in this fixture nearly three years ago.

But Ronaldo and his 68th-minute departure provided the talking point. Though the rough house which Ferguson said he expected for him did not materialise – the only assault was the ball which one of the ballboys inadvertently hurled at him inside the first 15 minutes – the winger's malevolent side was on show. Ronaldo should have been dismissed before the hour when, having hacked at Wright-Phillips and been booked by Howard Webb, he looked the referee in the eye and offered ironic applause. Ronaldo was spared, only to leave after raising his hands after climbing towards a corner Rooney lofted over nine minutes later.

There was a blizzard of explanations afterwards but no matter. Ronaldo was on a yellow card and deliberately handled. The dismissal seemed to help United, even as it ended their attacking intent, forcing them to defend "in two banks of four," as Hughes put it. It did not remove an influential force from United. Deployed down the left, Ronaldo received little change from Micah Richards and Darius Vassell. It was the right flank, where Rafael da Silva and Park Ji-Sung went up against Javier Garrido that offered United's means of entry.

"You're not Robinho," the City fans shouted. But the Brazilian, playing after an injection to dull ankle pain, fared little better. Rafael claimed the £32.5m man's shirt after the match but if Ferguson's decision to hand the task of handling his compatriot was a risk, it was one which paid off.

Hughes found, by playing both Vincent Kompany and Dietmar Hamann, some of the robust defence he has been lacking but he lost powers of creation. While United threatened in the first half – Park crossing for Rooney, whose first-time shot was straight at Hart – City offered none of their counter-attacking panache. If anyone but Micah Richards had stood unmarked, five yards out to receive Ireland's pass with Van der Sar stranded, they might have sneaked ahead. But Richards' effort elicited minimal contact, it trickled wide and that was their lot.

Elano replaced Vassell and added some vision after the break – his 20-yard ball from defence starting the best move which saw Benjani hitting the side netting. But this was a display which revealed just how long a road City have to travel in their journey to reach United's higher ground.

Goals: Rooney (42) 0-1.

Manchester City (4-1-3-2) Hart; Richards (Sturridge, 75), Kompany, Dunne, Garrido; Hamann (Elano, h-t); Vassell (Zabaleta, h-t), Ireland, Wright-Phillips; Robinho, Benjani. Substitutes not used: Schmeichel (gk), Ball, Ben Haim, Jo.

Manchester United (4-2-3-1) Van der Sar; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Carrick, Fletcher; Park (O'Shea, 89), Rooney, Ronaldo; Berbatov (Giggs, 82). Substitutes not used: Anderson, Foster (gk), Nani, Evans, Tevez.

Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).

Booked: Manchester City Ireland, Vassell; Manchester United Da Silva, Fletcher, Ronaldo, Evra, Carrick.

Sent off: Ronaldo (68).

Man of the match: Wright-Phillips.

Attendance: 47,320.

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