• Adam Stanworth


Old Trafford has seen some remarkable things in its long history but none more exceptional than Ronaldo’s dazzling individual display in April 2003

In June 2002, Ronaldo had been in mesmeric mood at the World Cup in the Far East, as he sported his inexplicable semi-circular fringe.

Despite the undoubtable talent Brazil had at their disposal, their striker was by far their outstanding player and proved to be their catalyst as Selecao won their fifth World Cup.

By then, it was widely regarded that he was the best player in the world and his individual brilliance in Japan merely cemented this accepted principle.

His performances had prompted the Spanish giants Real Madrid to sign Il Fenomeno from Inter Milan in the summer of 2002, resulting in record-breaking shirt sales.

Ronaldo and Real Madrid were safely on course for the title and looked to be cruising into the Champions League semi-final after a commanding 3-1 victory in the first leg at the Bernabeu, against Premier League champions elect Manchester United.

Real were the reigning European champions, having defeated Bayer Leverkusen at Hampden Park eleven months prior.

With their new talisman in the side, it was difficult to see how they would lose their crown.

Meanwhile, Manchester United welcomed Real to Old Trafford in outstanding form as United were unbeaten in the league since Boxing Day.

Prior to their first-leg Bernabeu defeat, the Reds had eased through their second group stage, which included embarrassing eventual runners-up Juventus 3-0 on their own patch.

Since the first leg, United had humiliated title rivals Newcastle 6-2 at St James’ Park, before they had earned a crucial draw with Arsenal at Highbury to put the title firmly in their grasp.

For all the talent on show, this fixture would ultimately belong to Ronaldo.

Real kicked off on an unusually rain-free night in Manchester and initially relaxed into their natural passing rhythm, but United’s ferocious press curtailed Los Blancos play as the game opened up.

Urgency was the order of the day for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men as they looked to claw back Madrid’s advantage.

The game was barely four minutes old when Ruud Van Nistelrooy picked up the ball on the right edge of the penalty area, before buying himself some space by selling Ivan Helguera a dummy.

The Dutchman then drove a fierce shot at an unsuspecting Iker Casillas who had to push the ball over the crossbar, having possibly expected Van Nistelrooy to square it.

Just over ten minutes had played, when, in the blinking of an eye, a threaded pass from Guti set Ronaldo scampering after it.

Reaching the edge of the box, Ronaldo still had a lot to do as Rio Ferdinand kept pace with him but he unleashed a shot goal-wards which caught Fabian Barthez cold and flew between the Frenchman and his near post, into the back of the net.

Ronaldo had shown Manchester United just how lethal he was and in a matter of seconds, he had turned a promising start for the home side into a worrying situation as Van Nistelrooy’s away goal had been cancelled out.

United kept up their ferocity in attack as Van Nistelrooy continued to be a handful, with Ryan Giggs and John O’Shea’s industry down the left-hand-side yielded good opportunities.

Real were still a threat, however, and went mightily close on twenty-minutes as a mis-hit volley by Luis Figo looped high before dropping quickly, forcing Barthez to back-peddle and tip the ball over the crossbar.

Ronaldo was pulling the strings for Real and proved a constant headache for the United rear-guard with his physicality, and won a free kick in Roberto Carlos territory, which his compatriot subsequently wasted.

Ryan Giggs went closest for United on thirty-five minutes as a loose ball off the back of Luis Figo fell kindly to the Welshman on the edge of the box, before curling his effort agonisingly wide of the post.

Minutes later, Solskjaer went close as his effort was saved somewhat unconvincingly by Casillas before United finally got their equaliser.

A deft defence-splitting pass from Ryan Giggs set Solskjaer free who lifted the ball over Casillas for Van Nistelrooy to put the ball into an empty net as a palpable sense of relief consumed Old Trafford.

After an exhilarating forty-five minutes, referee Pierluigi Collina hit pause with the score level and United very much in the ascendancy.

However, the half-time break had ended United’s ascendancy as Real Madrid dominated the opening exchanges of the second period which resulted in the home side's worst nightmares becoming reality.

A stunning passage of play resulted in Luis Figo’s curled effort kissing the crossbar before Real recycled possession.

Zidane, on the edge of the box, played the ball into the path of the on-rushing Roberto Carlos who squared it to a waiting Ronaldo who had been inexplicably left unmarked.

Ronaldo had evaded the clutches of both John O’Shea and Wes Brown in eerily lightning fashion, before tapping home and was a goal which had all the hallmarks of a Galacticos goal.

Los Blancos lead on the night lasted only a minute, as an indefatigable United went down the other end of the pitch and forced the issue as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer found Seba Veron unmarked on the left of the penalty area, whose miscue hit the standing leg of Ivan Helguera and trundled in.

Game back on.

The ten minutes since the restart had certainly extinguished any fears that the second half would be a far duller affair and set the tone for a fascinating final thirty-five minutes.

Ronaldo had already made his mark on proceedings in a pronounced manner by putting a brilliant solo and a mesmerising team goal past Fabian Barthez, whilst his overall play had bamboozled United’s back four who were spell-bound by Il Fenomeno.

Just over five minutes had passed since United’s second equaliser and there was a sense of injustice around Old Trafford, that there had not been another goal scored as Ole Solskjaer’s effort went straight at Casillas.

Out of nowhere, the only man capable of such feats on the pitch that night produced a moment of pure virtuosity.

The game had settled, slightly, since the frantic early exchanges of the second period as Ronaldo picked the ball up thirty yards from goal and made head-way towards the United penalty box.

The Manchester United defence looked terrified as they criminally backed off from the Brazilian, however this should not take away from what happened next.

Ronaldo twisted and turned before focusing his course as he shaped himself to unleash a stupendous drive which flew into the bottom right of Fabian Barthez’ net, with the Frenchman helpless in stopping its flight.

ITV’s commentator that night, Clive Tyldesley, like the rest of Old Trafford, was left dumbfounded by the Brazilian’s performance and as the ball nestled in the corner simply exclaimed ‘what a hat-trick and what a stage at which to score it’.

Perhaps the only way he could sum up what Ronaldo had just done.

United were not lying down, however, with Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s exquisite drilled effort that whistled past the post, highlighting the home side’s continued fight.

Madrid Coach, Vincente del Bosque then spoiled the show by bringing off its star, ten minutes after his third goal.

Ronaldo’s departure from the pitch was met with a rare Old Trafford standing ovation, with all four corners of the famous old stadium rising to applaud him.

On the hour mark, Ronaldo’s future team-mate David Beckham had entered the fray, having been controversially left out of the starting eleven by Sir Alex Ferguson that night, and provided the encore performance in the Brazilian’s absence.

Van Nistelrooy continued to cause Madrid’s back four problems and on one of his marauding runs forward, a step-over fooled Helguera who stuck out a leg which brought the Dutchman down just outside the box.

This was David Beckham territory.

In fact, the free-kick was in almost the exact position from where he had scored his famous equaliser against Greece for England in the World Cup qualifier, eighteen months earlier.

The England captain curled the ball exquisitely into the roof of the Stretford End net in trademark David Beckham fashion, giving Casillas no chance, with the Spaniard simply raising his arms aloft as if to say ‘what was I supposed to do?’.

United had their third equaliser of the night and Beckham’s arrival had been immediately impactful.

The game continued in its liberal attacking fashion as both teams made assaults on one another’s goals with van Nistelrooy and Solari going closest.

With five minutes left on the clock, United gave themselves more hope.

Casillas’ save from van Nistelrooy had sent the ball spinning towards Fernando Hierro, who inadvertently knocked the ball goal-wards before Beckham slid in to ensure the goal was his and claim his second.

United were in front on the night but their efforts were in vain as Ronaldo’s goals had ensured Real Madrid would advance to the semi-finals to face Juventus.

However, despite a 2-1 first leg victory, Madrid went on to lose the tie, largely due to the absence of an injured Ronaldo in the second leg.

It shows how incredible a talent the Brazilian’s was as, despite the remarkable score-line, the game will always be remembered for his special hat-trick.

It is also testimony to him that he had the sheer audacity and ability to score a hat-trick in the way he did against a formidable Manchester United side who would go onto be English champions a month later.

This had truly been the Il Fenomeno show.