In the end, it was about as much as one could have expected from Cristiano Ronaldo on Wednesday.
The Real Madrid attacker, who turned 28 earlier this month, was facing Manchester United for the first time since leaving Old Trafford in 2009, and while he was the best forward on the park over the course of the Round of 16 first leg at the Bernabeu, he could not quite do enough to give the hosts the advantage ahead of the return match.
Not that Madrid’s overall wastefulness in front of goal was totally down to him. Quite the contrary, in fact.
Ronaldo tested United goalkeeper David De Gea on four occasions (the former Atletico Madrid No. 1 was outstanding on this night) and narrowly missed the target on six others. No other player was as active in attack, and when he managed to find the back of the net after 30 minutes there was little the United defenders could do but throw their hands in the air.
“I said to Patrice Evra at halftime, ‘why didn’t you challenge [Ronaldo]?’” United manager Sir Alex Ferguson told the BBC in a post-match interview. “And then I saw the replays and then I thought, ‘what was I talking about?’ What a header. Unbelievable. You can’t stop that, the leap and the spring to hold himself in the air.”
He added, “We did very well containing [Ronaldo].”
Phil Jones deserves a lot of the credit for that. The United midfielder practiced his man-marking against Everton playmaker Marouane Fellaini on Sunday and transferred that performance to the Spanish capital on Wednesday. He rarely let Ronaldo out of his sight, and when he did there was Michael Carrick or Jonny Evans to give the Portugal captain the odd, off-putting nudge.
That Jones was able to stay with Ronaldo had a lot to do with Madrid manager José Mourinho’s decision to have his talisman operate mostly through the middle, which he was allowed to do given the effectiveness of left-back Fábio Coentrão. The 24-year-old, who moved from Benfica to Madrid in 2011, kept United right-back Rafael occupied much of the night, and with the left flank taken care of Ronaldo had the freedom operate centrally.
And while he had his chances, he did not spent much time on the ball. Attacking teammate Karim Benzema often looked off the pace and was overall quite poor, but Angel Di Maria—who came into the match carrying a minor knock—made a good showing and involved himself in the positional interplay that was seemingly designed to accommodate Ronaldo.
It was his cross that found Ronaldo’s head on the half-hour—an accurate in-swinger into the goal-mouth that the 2008 FIFA World Footballer of the Year had to leap at before powering the ball past De Gea with a powerful header. It was eerily reminiscent of the goal he scored for United in the 2008 Champions League final against Chelsea, but he wouldn’t come as close again against his former club.
“It was a tough game,” he told UEFA.com following the match. “United are a very strong team defensively.”
And United, who will take a precious away goal back to Old Trafford, can be mighty pleased with the job they did on their former superstar. Aside from the header even Ferguson admitted was unstoppable, they rarely put a foot wrong in their containment of him over the 90 minutes. No doubt they’ll be feeling good about the scoreline ahead of the second leg.