Ronaldo's impudent art of improvisation

Portuguese winger stays on his feet to display Footballer of the Year credentials
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Dare it be suggested that we had witnessed another compelling entry from the portfolio of the prospective Footballer of the Year yesterday? It would be a brave man to argue his case, particularly at the end of this of all World Cup years. Yet, on an afternoon which started and ended with the English game's most scrutinised personality illuminating the occasion, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the claims of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Though many outside the footballing constituency of Old Trafford would prefer to abstain from such a vote, on the principle that dedication to fair play should be a component of the winner's character, it should be stressed that here his behaviour did nothing to offend even the most jaundiced eye. Unlike last week at the Riverside.

Before the whistle, Ronaldo had received his Premiership Player of the Month award: for November. His manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, continues to take the high moral ground about his winger's propensity for going too easily to earth, repeating in yesterday's match programme that "we don't encourage players to cheat at this club" and that "Cristiano is the most fouled player in the game". However, the suspicion is that had last Saturday's defeat of Middlesbrough, including the Portuguese's dubiously won penalty not just crept into December, then the judging panel may have had good cause to revise their opinion.

A week on, it was ironic that, at the death, Ronaldo should confirm victory with his sixth goal of the season... only moments before City's Bernardo Corradi was dismissed for two bookable offences, the second a brazen dive. Mind you, there could be no argument here. Last Saturday, at least Ferguson could play m'learned friend and defend his man with the dubious claim that Ronaldo lost his balance. Here, it was a pathetic attempt at duping the officials. His manager, Stuart Pearce, gave the culprit not a glance as he sloped off.

Ronaldo's goal culminated another afternoon of impudence and improvisation. At times mesmerising, at others merciless, and just occasionally maddening for the faithful - what else would they expect? - his first act, after receiving his award, was to push the ball around Ben Thatcher, leaving the City full-back resembling a man for whom a bus has failed to stop and stares open-mouthed as it speeds past, before he was unceremoniously bundled into touch by Joey Barton.

It wasn't a malicious challenge; just a statement of intent by the 24-year-old on a day when too few of his team-mates appeared to share his belief that City could earn their first win here since 1974 when Denis Law's back-heel became the least celebrated goal in the game's history. One suspects, with displays like yesterday's when he was a driving, demanding influence throughout, Barton will still be coveted by clubs whose aspirations extend rather higher than City's.

A summons from Steve McClaren would not be beyond expectation, and on this evidence an England opportunity would be at least as merited as that of Michael Carrick, who scarcely demonstrated he was worthy of United's programme billing of him as "worth every penny of the £14 million he cost the Reds from Spurs last summer".

Yes, he provides a decent enough link between defensive and attack in his role as holding midfielder, and here was frequently involved in his team's passing movements. Yet, for a player of whom so much is anticipated, he failed to enforce his presence on the game. He is too easily fended off in the tackle and, on occasions, his distribution is poor - failings that have caused his inclusion to be questioned at international level.

Not that it mattered yesterday. United did not have to be at the peak of performance to ensure that City would not improve their depressing away form. Not with Ronaldo looking a vote-winner.