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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 May, 2004, 12:35 GMT 13:35 UK
Ronaldo rides to the rescue
By Andy McKenzie
BBC Sport at the Millennium Stadium

Cristiano Ronaldo holds aloft the FA Cup
Ronaldo was outstanding
Sir Alex Ferguson
Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson will have at least two reasons to be cheerful as he looks back on what has been a difficult season.

One is the knowledge that having come third in the league and been knocked out of the European Cup by Porto there is some silverware for the trophy room.

The other will be a feeling of vindication - his gamble of 12.24m on Cristiano Ronaldo has paid off.

Ferguson has stuck by Ronaldo, despite criticism of the Portuguese teenager.

For a large chunk of this campaign it looked like misplaced loyalty from Ferguson as Ronaldo's highlights were all too often in his hair rather than on the field.

United's number seven has clearly not found it easy filling the considerable gap left by the departure of David Beckham to Real Madrid.

It all looked so different when Ronaldo burst onto the Premiership scene with a memorable debut as a substitute against Bolton back in August, just days after his costly arrival from Sporting Lisbon.

Ferguson responded to the Madeira-born winger's arrival by saying - "It looks like the fans have a new hero" - hardly helping to downplay the Beckham comparisons.

But it was not long before Ronaldo's tendency to attempt the ridiculous saw him downgraded from showman to show pony.

But on the biggest day of United's season the 19-year-old Ronaldo found a suitable stage to put on display his considerable box of tricks.

The man with the golden boots put the magic in the cup with some sublime pieces of trickery that had the home fans on their feet and some bemused Millwall players on their backside.

I think Ronaldo can be one of the top footballers in the world
Gary Neville
There were still some moments of madness as he gave away possession too easily in the name of entertainment.

Against better opposition it is unlikely he would have been allowed as much space or have seen as much of the ball, and his sloppy passes might have been punished.

But that is to overlook that sometimes Ronaldo has saved his best for when United needed it most, notably in the semi-final win over Arsenal.

His performance at Villa Park prompted Ferguson to call Ronaldo his "ace".

And against Millwall he combined his match-winning abilities with an increased awareness of when to keep things simple.

He even showed a desire to chase down lost causes, and a willingness to battle to win the ball back not too dissimilar from his predecessor on the right side of midfield.

But comparisons at this early stage to Beckham are unlikely to come out favourable for Ronaldo.

It is an unfair to look at the contribution of a teenager making his first steps in the game and on foreign territory, and contrast it to an established England international who had spent over 10 years with the club.

Comparing Ronaldo to Beckham would be like evaluating David Bellion's impact against Ruud van Nistelrooy, Kleberson against Roy Keane or Eric Djemba-Djemba against Paul Scholes.

With the exception of Tim Howard, none of Ferguson's summer buys have been up to the task of consistently elevating United's play over the past season.

But at the Millennium Stadium Ronaldo showed more than just a glimpse of why he has the most chance of carving out a long-term career at Old Trafford.





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