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The Night Manchester United Won The Battle, But Ronaldo And Real Madrid Won The War

In a new series, we look back at some classic matches throughout football history. To kick things off, we remember the night Ronaldo stunned the Old Trafford crowd in a Champions League classic in 2003.

The Backstory

Real Madrid found themselves 3-1 ahead from the first leg two weeks earlier thanks to goals from Luis Figo and two from Raúl, with Figo and Zidane in particular turning in fantastic performances.

At Man United, meanwhile, the relationship between Sir Alex Ferguson and David Beckham had deteriorated over the previous few months, the animosity highlighted by the famous “flying boot” incident two months before this clash. Still, while it was inconceivable that the England captain would be dropped for such an important match, Ferguson had other ideas and Beckham found himself on the bench.

Real Madrid boss Vicente del Bosque threw in a surprise of his own to his team selection for the second leg, the generally out-of-favour Steve McManaman coming in to replace the equally underused Flavio Conceiçao in the midfield as the manager attempted a reshuffle to deal with the loss of Raúl, out with an ankle injury. The striker was replaced in the starting eleven by Guti.



The Match

With main man Raúl injured, United must have felt like they were in with a chance of overturning Madrid’s lead. A 2-0 win on the night would be enough to see Ferguson’s side into the semi-finals for the second successive year.

The task was made that much harder, however, when Brazilian legend Ronaldo put Real ahead after just 12 minutes, racing away from Ferdinand to fire in low past United keeper Fabien Barthez. Man United now needed three, and even that would only be enough for extra time.

To their credit they looked far livelier as the half went on, Ryan Giggs and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer coming close with efforts before Ruud van Nistelrooy equalised on the stroke of half time. Any hopes they had of gaining momentum were dashed just 5 minutes into the second half, though, when Ronaldo tapping in his second, Roberto Carlos and Zidane combining nicely to give the striker an easy finish.

Man United were not ready to give up just yet, and were back in the match only two minutes later. Juan Sebastián Verón, returning after a two month layoff, fired across the face of goal to be met by Iván Helguera who was unable to stop his momentum and fired past his own keeper. Solskjaer brought a save out of Iker Casillas as United kept pushing forward.

The blistering start to the second half continued on the hour mark as the match swung back in Real’s favour. Ronaldo, causing havoc for the Man United defence, completed his hat-trick with a brilliant strike from 25 yards out.

Enter Beckham; the winger replaced Verón on 63 minutes as Alex Ferguson’s side desperately looked for a way back into the match. Ruud van Nistelrooy struck the post soon after with a rare strike from outside the box, but Man United could now smell blood.

Ronaldo, meanwhile, was taken off to a standing ovation after completing his mission of terrorising the home defence, replaced by Argentine winger Santiago Solari as del Bosque sought to get more bodies in midfield and push back a little from the United box.

When Helguera took down van Nistelrooy on the edge of the Madrid box in the 71st, there was no question as to who was taking the resulting free kick. Beckham, given his first chance to impress following his introduction, fired a perfect free kick over the wall and past Iker Casillas. 3-3 now, and while the tie was almost certainly beyond Ferguson’s team, the match was still there to be won.

The final and decisive goal came on the 80th minute. Van Nistelrooy’s initial shot was blocked by Casillas, and as Fernando Hierro’s deflection headed towards the net, Beckham was on hand to make sure and stab home from close range.

That was to prove the last goal action of the game. Real Madrid, despite losing the battle, had won the war.



The Aftermath 

Real Madrid progressed to the semi-finals of the Champions League, but they were to go no further. Despite beating Juventus 2-1 at the Bernabéu, a 3-1 defeat in the away leg sent them home early. They did go on to win La Liga, finishing two points ahead of Real Sociedad at the top of the table.

For Man United, their season was still far from over. Nine points from their last three games meant that they were able to wrestle the Premier League title back from rivals Arsenal. David Beckham, scorer of two goals, swapped one of these clubs for the other at the end of the season. The England winger even turned down Barcelona to become the latest “Galáctico” signing from Madrid president Florentino Pérez.

The story goes that this was the match that convinced Roman Abramovich to buy an English team, and in the summer of 2003 bought Chelsea. Therefore not only is this match a classic, it may have had a hand in changing the face of English and European football forever.


M. United: Barthez, O’Shea, Ferdinand, Brown, Silvestre, Verón, Butt, Keane, Giggs, Solskjaer, van Nistelrooy.

Subs: P. Neville (Silvestre 79), Beckham (Verón 63), Fortune (Keane 82)
Unused: Ricardo, Blanc, Fletcher, Forlán.


R. Madrid: Casillas, Salgado, Hierro, Helguera, R. Carlos, Makélélé, McManaman, Figo, Zidane, Guti, Ronaldo.

Subs: Portillo (Mcmanaman 69), Pavon (Figo 88), Solari (Ronaldo 67).
Unused: Cesar, F Conceiçao, Cambiasso, Morientes.

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Author: The PA Team

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