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Ronaldo shows the way in United's magical night

He was the best, most beautiful player in the world on Tuesday night, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH

Ronaldo is "by far" the best player in the world, insisted Wayne Rooney recently, and no Christian name is required to clarify which Ronaldo he was referring to. Chelsea fans, worshipping at the dextrous feet of Didier Drogba, would sneer that United's Ronaldo is not even the best player in England. Of course, when it comes to football, for some England is the only world that matters, but that's neither here nor there.

In football, there is no precise measure to assess an individual's contribution. If we vulgarly interpreted all sport through numbers like Americans, we would calculate Ronaldo's "goals" and his "assists" but being football snobs we know art cannot be reduced to statistics.

Perhaps we just might say that Ronaldo's polished game makes others shine, that Manchester United's revival this season is linked to his own ascension to greatness, that he is a matured, consistent soloist who makes a fine orchestra appear even finer.

Still, "best player" of this season, we can argue forever. But one thing is certain: he was the best, most beautiful player in the world on Tuesday night.

Manchester United's 7-1 defeat of Roma in the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinals (down 2-1 after the first leg) was a splendid insult to the proud Italian tradition of defence. Romans will moan their team forgot to lock its defensive door, Mancunians will insist their gang can pick any lock with their imaginative feet. Here was football that was briefly faultless.

Elusive perfection

No team/athlete can capture perfection for an entire innings or two hours of a tennis match. It is a good thing, too, for what would be left to play for.

But every now and then, athletes/teams will momentarily reach out and touch perfection, flirt with flawlessness, for a set in tennis, a spell of bowling.

It comes from nowhere, for the men who achieve this fleeting nirvana are the same fellows who might have lost last week, and appeared plainly imperfect.

But for some reason, for one particular moment all their talents, their resoluteness, come together.

It is part of the reason we watch sport, for this temporary magic. Brazil in long stretches during the 1970 cup, Tendulkar in some periods against Australia in Sharjah in 1998, Sampras for two-and-half sets of the 1999 Wimbledon final.

That day in 1999, Agassi said of Sampras: "He walked on water."

The same might be said of United for most of 45 minutes on Tuesday night.

In the second half, the score was United 2, Roma 1. Nice. In the first half, the score was 5-0.

Every United touch held a promise of goal, every flicked pass found a willing taker, every instinctive attack seemed designed in a ballet studio, every United boot offered up a threat.

And always there was Ronaldo, who does not so much run as tap dance across the ground, his footwork suggesting a fellow playing on burning sand not cool grass. Perhaps he thinks it is illegal for his feet to stay still, for he steps over the ball, flicks it, jinks, turns, pivots, like a magician who wants to quickly show you his full range of tricks.

He ghosted past two defenders to set up the first goal for Michael Carrick, mugged two defenders to initiate the third goal, scored the fourth, and then the fifth, and in between took free kicks, harried defenders, and opened up space. He may not have dominated the game, but he was always in it. One might say he deserved his own television camera.

Ronaldo and his team gave Alex Ferguson a reason to grin, for they oxygenated his Champions League dream. A man who reeks with ambition will, despite his varied success, remember that he has only one European cup.

Liverpool's Bob Paisley had three and Nottingham Forest's Brian Clough had two, and the latter never let Ferguson forget it. "For all his horses, knighthoods and championships, he (Alex) hasn't got two of what I've got," said Clough.

Ferguson does not have much time in his career left for another European win. But he may not be fretting too much. For on Tuesday night's evidence he may believe that time has come.

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