Sensational Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick lifts Manchester United past Tottenham to boost top four hopes

Manchester United 3-2 Tottenham: The Portuguese hit a treble to boost the Red Devils’ hopes of securing a top four finish in the Premier League

Mark Critchley
At Old Trafford
Saturday 12 March 2022 22:00 GMT
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Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring his hat-trick and winner against Spurs
Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring his hat-trick and winner against Spurs (Reuters)

For a player whose integration into this Manchester United team has caused plenty of problems, Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals may ultimately solve their biggest one of all. The 805th, 806th and 807th goals of his 20-year-long career not only mean he is now the top goalscorer in the history of competitive men’s football, but also that United’s hopes of securing a top-four finish and Champions League football next season remain alive.

Anything less than victory against Tottenham Hotspur would have made those hopes look increasingly desperate and start a potentially season-defining week in a bad way. Unless Ralf Rangnick’s side took all three points, the decision to overlook Antonio Conte as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s immediate successor would be questioned. A Harry Maguire own goal, adding to Harry Kane’s first-half penalty, appeared to put United on that path.

Yet even at 37-years-old, with a creaking body, a dodgy hip and on the back of a run of poor form, Ronaldo gives you a chance. His record-equalling first had been a thunderbolt out of nothing. The record-breaking second capped a fine team move. The match-winning third was powered in off a corner, with the five-time Ballon d’Or winner rising highest to meet Alex Telles’ corner and head in.

His hat-trick complete, the Portuguese heaved United over the line and onto one of the most important wins of their season to date. Tom Brady, the seven-time Super Bowl winner and greatest quarterback in the sport’s history, was watching from the Old Trafford directors’ box and it felt symbolic that an athlete associated with age-defying, all-conquering endurance was there to bear witness.

Brady is Kane’s hero – and said he would fist bump the Tottenham striker if he scored – but he was here to see Ronaldo.

Ronaldo celebrates after scoring their side’s second goal (Getty)

The upshot is that United end the day in fourth place. That position is far from secure, with Arsenal only two points behind and four games in hand to catch up, but it is healthier than Tottenham’s. Yes, Conte’s side have postponements of their own to play and could still go ahead of United if they win their two games in hand but you would rather have the points on the board and today, it was all about the man who put them there.

Ronaldo was among five changes from last weekend’s defeat in the Manchester derby but there was no Bruno Fernandes due to an illness. David de Gea’s involvement had been threatened by a Covid test that turned out to be a false positive, with two further negatives allowing him to play. Tottenham’s team news was simple by comparison, with Sergio Reguilon replacing the injured Ryan Sessegnon.

Kane bagged a goal from the penalty spot (Tottenham Hotspur/Getty)

Ronaldo would make his influence felt from the very start and was furious when an early penalty appeal was denied. His shot to conclude a fine United move, which began with a raking cross-field pass by the much-maligned Maguire, had hit Eric Dier’s arm but referee Jonathan Moss saw no offence. Ronaldo only stopped arguing his case once he had scored.

It was, in fairness, spectacular. Not quite Porto in 2009 – around 25 yards out rather than 40 and not travelling at the same pace – but still special. After Fred’s delicate flick into his feet and two touches to set himself, it was still hit with the same authority that rendered Hugo Lloris helpless. That hip flexor issue, that led to last weekend’s Portugal sojourn, no longer seemed to be a problem.

Tottenham were behind but by no means beaten. Conte’s side were probably the stronger on the overall balance of play throughout the first half, causing plenty of trouble in the channels. As the pressure slowly built on a United defence that was being pulled out of shape, a smart goal-line clearance by Diogo Dalot was required to prevent Dier from levelling from a Son Heung-min corner.

Dejan Kulusevski was proving particularly problematic and eventually forced the spot-kick for Kane’s equaliser, wriggling past Jadon Sancho and drilling a cross that struck Alex Telles on the arm. Kane’s penalty was not entirely out of De Gea’s reach but hit low and hard, down the United goalkeeper’s right, and had enough power on it to restore the parity that Tottenham’s response had deserved.

Spurs celebrate after Maguire scores an own goal (Reuters)

Yet having worked so hard to draw level, they were behind again within four minutes. It was a brilliant United move – the type not seen often enough at Old Trafford this season – from Nemanja Matic’s ball over the top, to the timing of Sancho’s run in behind, to Ronaldo’s movement and finish. It would have been offside, though, if not for Reguilon failing to stay in line with his teammates and sloppily playing Sancho on.

Tottenham lost some of their spark from that point, and re-emerged for the second half looking more one-paced and predictable. There was something about the manner of United’s goals, though, which suggested that they would not cruise through the second half.

They had not come out of nothing but were certainly against the run of play. One unlucky bounce or deflection could turn the game around. Unfortunately for Maguire, that bounce came off his body.

Kane had done well to hold off Varane before Son played Reguilon in behind United’s defence down the left. Maguire stuck out a leg to stop the left-back’s cross from reaching Cristian Romero inside the penalty area and, in doing so, diverted the cross into his own net. Romero celebrated in the unfortunate United captain’s face, perhaps forgetting that there was still 18 minutes plus stoppage time to play and, crucially, history’s greatest goalscorer was still on the pitch.

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