As far as perfect performances come – this is as close as Manchester United produced. They had a habit of playing well under Sir Alex Ferguson. But this game stands out as the most impressive European performance from United under Ferguson. It was an unforgettable night for fans and will stand the test of time as an ongoing example of total football.
The story goes John O’Shea was so exhausted at halftime during a match against Sporting Lisbon after being given the run around by a sprightly young Portuguese winger. So impressed were the Manchester United players, they promptly encouraged Sir Alex Ferguson to sign up the kid. Cristiano Ronaldo joined United for £12 million and began a career that would ignite the landscape of world football.
Ronaldo was often accused of not having a final product, of taking too many players on and being more interested in performing fanciful step overs than passing to his teammates. The 2007 season was a distinct turning point in his career. He began to elevate his footballing skill above his peers and his display against Roma sparked the start of his ascent to superiority.
Although not as unplayable as he would later go on to be, he posed a threat so great, the typically stalwart Roma defence were completely overwhelmed. His two goals, plus his part in the build-up of another, demonstrated Ronaldo at the peak of his powers. The third goal, a sweeping counter attacking move finished off by Wayne Rooney passing the ball into the net, started with Ronaldo breaking across the halfway line and between Roma defenders like they were not there. It proves as a reminder of the sheer athleticism Ronaldo once, and still does, possess.
His first goal, and United’s fourth in the match, encapsulated the experience he gave fans on an almost weekly basis. He collected the ball and penetrated the defence with a solo run before rifling the ball into the bottom right corner. All too often, opposition defences gave him the space he desperately craved and so ruthlessly exploited. Ferguson made a habit of deploying Ronaldo so he could move around and determine opposition weaknesses enabling him to take full advantage.
Ronaldo’s second was a prelude to the predatory striker he would become a decade later. Predominantly stationary for most of the build-up as he sized up the pattern of play. Then, just as the final ball is delivered, he comes alive. His movement is so rapid and decisive that defenders are helpless. He met a pinpoint cross and crashed home from inside six yards out. At Real Madrid, he has evolved this skill into a deadly weapon over the past two seasons.
This game holds significance for Ryan Giggs. Traditionally he played as a flying left winger. Used to beating players, getting to the by-line and delivering crosses. Later in his career Giggs started to move into more central positions and rely on his incredible footballing brain as well as his eye for a pass. Unlike Paul Scholes, who withdrew into a deeper playmaking position, Giggs operated between the holding and attacking players. He led United as though he were a conductor and they were his orchestra. Together, with Scholes’ ability to control the tempo of a game, Giggs’ left foot provided United with a weapon able to open up defences with a single sweep of an incisive pass.
This game holds tactical significance for United as Ferguson organised his team in a 4-2-3-1 setup. Alan Smith played as the lone striker and acted as a distraction for the fluid movement of players behind him. Rooney, Ronaldo and Giggs floated around behind Smith and interchanged with such flexibility they constantly found themselves in open space. It was a revelation for United with Carrick and Fletcher protecting the back four and persistently looking to move the ball forward to the players ahead.
But across the two ties against Roma, something else had caught Ferguson’s eye. In the first leg, United’s centre backs struggled to decide who they should be marking because there was no clear striker or pair of strikers within Roma’s system. Instead, they used a holding midfielder and attacked with four and sometimes five other midfielders pushing forward. Francesco Totti started in a nominal striker’s position but dropped deep to support his side’s midfield – effectively creating a 4-6-0 formation.
Roma showed occasional quality with the system but ultimately lacked players good enough to make it work. After all, any tactical system, no matter how innovate, is only as good as the players operating within it. Ferguson tinkered with this idea for the second leg and his side made extensive use of the freedom offered to Rooney, Ronaldo and Giggs.
It was at this time Totti effectively invented the ‘false nine’ position. Lionel Messi undoubtedly evolved the role further. But often, United and Ronaldo’s contribution to the false nine system is majorly overlooked.
United’s magnificent display on this magical European night will be recalled as a scintillating display of attacking virtuoso, Giggs’ midfield supremacy, the beginning of Ronaldo’s evolution into the complete attacking player, and how he wrote his own chapter in the history of the false nine.