Cristiano Ronaldo to Manchester United: The game that sealed it



As Cristiano Ronaldo prepares to face Sporting in the Champions League, we recall the 2003 friendly against Manchester United in the same stadium. The game that made him…

On November 22, Cristiano Ronaldo will return to the Estadio Jose Alvalade in Lisbon with Real Madrid. He does so as a three-time Champions League winner, a three-time Ballon d'Or winner, and the man who captained his country to glory at Euro 2016.

It's been quite the journey. But in a sense, when he sets foot on that turf, the home of his old club Sporting, he's going back to the start. It was Ronaldo's extraordinary performance in a friendly to commemorate the inauguration of the stadium that set him on this path.

Manchester United were the visitors, fresh from a successful pre-season tour of the United States in which they'd won all of their games - including convincing victories over Celtic, Juventus and Barcelona. And yet, they weren't prepared for what awaited them in Lisbon.

Ronaldo was ready. Although his Portugal debut was still a fortnight away, his reputation was growing fast. He'd been a visitor to Arsenal's London Colney training ground for three days the previous November, having scored twice on his Sporting debut a month earlier.

But it was United who really got to see what Ronaldo could do close-up and with a crowd to entertain. Inspired by the chance to impress, the 55,000 in the Alvalade saw the 18-year-old run through his now famous repertoire of stepovers. His quality was immediately apparent.

Gary Neville was watching at home and recalls being wide-eyed at what he was witnessing. "I thought 'bloody hell'," he said. Neville paid particular attention to Ronaldo's movement given that he was playing on the left - tormenting the England man's deputy at right-back.

Neville had the easy job. John O'Shea was the man tasked with marking the teenager. It proved an ordeal as the Irishman was left befuddled by the winger's tricks and helpless to deal with his sheer speed. It could have been anyone but there wasn't much sympathy.

Ryan Giggs, watching safely from the sidelines, saw the funny side. "You see Ronaldo get the ball, and you see him turn John O'Shea inside out, and you're having a little giggle to yourself," he admitted. O'Shea returned to the dressing room at half time exhausted.

Describing the scene, Rio Ferdinand claimed that O'Shea was "sitting there like he needed some oxygen" while captain Roy Keane went further. "Sheasy ended up seeing the doctor at half time because he was actually having dizzy spells," he recalled in his autobiography.

O'Shea insists that's a little over the top. "It's fair to say there's exaggerations in people's autobiographies from time to time," he told talkSPORT. "While he did give me a roasting, there wasn't too many dizzy spells. There was a bit of jetlag, but there was no dizzy spells."

Even so, Sir Alex Ferguson put O'Shea out of his misery early in the second half after seeing Ronaldo cut through the United defence one time too many. With help from Mikael Silvestre, Fabien Barthez kept that one out, just as he'd parried a first-half effort clear.

Indeed, perhaps the only surprise was that Ronaldo failed to get on the scoresheet. It was Luis Filipe who gave Sporting the lead before star forward Joao Pinto added two more goals. But there was no question who the United players were talking about afterwards.

"He just lit up the game," said Giggs. "All the lads were talking to him after the game and I remember we were waiting on the coach and everybody was wondering what we were waiting for. And then we just got a little whisper that the deal was being done."

When the signing was announced, Ferguson stressed it was no rush move even if other clubs had forced United to act earlier than planned. "We've been negotiating for Cristiano for quite some time," he explained. "Sporting honoured our agreement of months ago."

Still, the reaction of his players had been noted. "The lads in the dressing room talked about him constantly," said Ferguson, "and on the plane back they urged me to sign him - that's how highly they rated him. He is one of the most exciting young players I've ever seen."

According to Keane, the players would later joke that "Sheasy actually sealed the deal by playing like a clown" - not that he didn't have a good comeback. "Look, everyone should be happy he came to United a year earlier because of it," said O'Shea.

Ronaldo has made many trips back to the Alvalade since, most notably scoring in a Euro 2004 semi-final win over Netherlands and getting the only goal of the game on his Champions League return to the stadium as a Manchester United player in 2007.

But when he lines up with Real Madrid later this month, perhaps it's his first game in the stadium - the first game in the stadium - that will loom largest in his thoughts. The game in which he won over his team-mates-to-be and gave a hint of the brilliance that was to follow.
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