The feet apart, the staggered run-up, the ball in the net: Cristiano Ronaldo from the penalty spot is just about the surest bet Manchester United have and, with three minutes played last night, the executioner was ready to strike. A Champions League final beckoned United; they could almost feel the spring sunshine in Red Square.
So when Ronaldo missed it was a very different United that emerged over the following 87 minutes. For nine months, through 38 goals and now in the endgame of another fabulous season for their No 7, United have relied on the inspiration of Ronaldo to drag them through. But last night here at the Nou Camp a different side to the Old Trafford machine came to the fore. Fortitude, resolution and the ability to keep their heads when events turned awry: this was a less-gilded, harder-edged, more prosaic United who escaped Catalonia with their Champions League lives intact.
It will be a different United in the semi-final second leg at Old Trafford on Tuesday. Sir Alex Ferguson promised as much afterwards. Not the backs-to-the-wall bunch from last night who frantically shored up the holes in their defence punched by Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto'o and later, when it seemed United could take no more, Thierry Henry. They did what they had to do last night, and what they had to do was hold on for dear life to a goalless draw in the frantic Barcelona attacks that followed Ronaldo's missed penalty.
This season United have travelled England and Europe breaking down obstinate defences and five-man midfields. Last night it was their turn to spoil and thwart, and they did it beautifully. Yes, they rode their luck at times but there was no good fortune in the defiance of Edwin van der Sar and Rio Ferdinand, in particular, who held together a patched-up back four missing Nemanja Vidic. After the Serb spent Tuesday night in hospital with a stomach bug, Wes Brown played at centre-half and Owen Hargreaves filled in at right-back.
Despite Ferguson's attempts to build up Ronaldo's contribution after his penalty miss this was not his finest night, although it could have been little fun taking the fight to Barcelona's back four alone. Wayne Rooney could be found filling in as an ad hoc right-back at times and Carlos Tevez was another body in front of the Barcelona attacks. The most celebrated performers were reduced to artisan tasks, although that will have to change next week.
"Mes que un club" reads the legend on the seats on the Nou Camp's steep sides and, like Barcelona's boast to be "more than a club", United can certainly consider themselves, on nights like these, more than just the team in which Ronaldo happens to play. They were herded back into their own half by Barcelona, who might be 11 points adrift of La Liga leaders Real Madrid but raged against the notion that they are trapped in some kind of terminal decline.
Anyone scoring the exchange between Messi and Ronaldo will have given it to the Argentine on points, even though he was unable to deliver the decisive blow. He lasted 62 minutes before Frank Rijkaard decided that the winger, starting for the first time since an injury lay-off, had done enough. At times Messi was sublime on the ball, his passes inside Hargreaves unreadable but there is something frustrating about the contribution of Messi that embodies the problems of Barcelona.
To summarise Barcelona on last night's evidence, think Arsenal in their moments of most brilliant and most wasteful excess. They seduced with their intricate passing and they failed to fashion much that was incisive or dangerous inside the United area. The touch and the fluency had their support in raptures until it slowly dawned that minutes, a half and eventually a whole game had passed and they had not fashioned the killer chance for a winning goal.
Besieged, Ferguson held on to the game plan to contain Barcelona, even if he later expressed regret that the deployment of Rooney and Park Ji Sung limited their attacking potency. The godfather of Old Trafford is so close to that Moscow final on 21 May now that he can probably already imagine himself in Moscow plotting victory like the ruthless old dictators who once held sway there. In terms of entertainment this was in a different league to Tuesday's semi-final first leg at Anfield.
It would be painful for Ferguson to toss it away now that so much hard work has been done, especially against a team who bear such a resemblance to Arsène Wenger's Arsenal and are beset with the frivolous nature in front of goal that United's manager has always railed against. But on Tuesday he has to pick the right balance between attack and consolidation. He has to choose the right time to strike and he needs a performance from Ronaldo to make the heart soar again.
Only the 23-year-old himself knows what he was thinking when he clipped his penalty, given for Gabriel Milito's handball, a good two yards wide of Victor Valdes' goal. Ronaldo is not infallible from the spot: he missed against West Ham in December in the rather less vaunted surroundings of Upton Park. But this penalty was different. It was, for United, worryingly bereft of the nonchalant confidence with which Ronaldo customarily dispatches the ball from the spot; the confidence that makes you think he cannot miss.
In the seconds after he had taken it, we glimpsed the boy behind the global superstar. Normally when he rakes a shot wide or is dramatically denied a goal, Ronaldo launches into a series of theatrical glares and grimaces for the close-up shots that he knows are beloved of television producers. This time he just put his face in his hands and looked genuinely shocked. Turns out he is human after all.
Ronaldo might have had another penalty when Rafael Marquez barged him after 29 minutes, but that was debatable.
For all their possession, Barcelona's best chances came at the start of the second half when Eto'o was allowed to run at United's defence. He left Ferdinand on the floor and, on his own by the touchline, picked out Messi in the centre – only an inspired recovering challenge from Michael Carrick saved United.
Henry came on for the last 13 minutes and tested Van der Sar with a scorcher of a shot, although Barcelona seemed to be fading rather than building to a crescendo. That is what United must do on Tuesday: show Barcelona that they have the momentum and, in the case of Ronaldo especially, the steel to make up for missed opportunities.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdes; Zambrotta, Marquez, Milito, Abidal; Deco (Henry, 77), Touré, Xavi; Messi (Krkic, 62), Eto'o, Iniesta. Substitutes not used: Pinto (gk), Gudjohnsen, Sylvinho, Giovani, Thuram.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Van der Sar; Hargreaves, Ferdinand, Brown, Evra; Rooney (Nani, 76), Carrick, Scholes, Park; Tevez (Giggs, 85); Ronaldo. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Anderson, Pique, O'Shea, Silvestre.
Referee: M Busacca (Switzerland).
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