The UEFA Champions League has delivered some special nights throughout the course of its illustrious history, a stage in which the world’s finest footballers exhibit their extraordinary talents.
There is something so utterly alluring about watching the titans of European football compete, stellar names across the continent drawn together under the bright lights of the sport’s most iconic stadia.
The latest piece in our Iconic Performances series revisits a star-studded quarter-final tie from the 2002/03 season, a last eight meeting between England’s dominant force of the past decade in Manchester United and the Galactico side of Real Madrid who arrived at Old Trafford as the reigning European champions.
The protagonist of the tale? The Brazilian brilliance of a certain Ronaldo Nazario.
Real Madrid’s recruitment drive of the early 2000s remains one of the most fascinating transfer strategies the game has ever seen, the Spanish giants bidding to assemble a side packed with the most glamorous names in world football.
Between the turn of the new millennium and the summer of 2004, the club signed no fewer than four Ballon d’Or winners, with arguably the sport’s most recognisable face in David Beckham also arriving at the Bernabeu for good measure.
Hindsight tells us that the planned era of domination did not quite plan out as hoped for president Florentino Perez, but Real were a captivating watch during that time as their collection of global names showcased their talents in the Spanish capital.
The last eight meeting with Manchester United pitted together two of the strongest sides in Europe, though it was the Spaniards who edged the first encounter to take a 3-1 lead to Manchester for the return.
Greeted by a raucous atmosphere at Old Trafford, it took an inspired performance from their summer signing to silence and stun the Red Devils’ support.
Ronaldo had exploded onto the world scene in the mid-nineties as an irrepressible young talent, scoring prolifically for PSV Eindhoven, Barcelona and Inter Milan to become the youngest ever winner of both the FIFA World Player of the Year accolade and Ballon d’Or.
He twice became the most expensive player in history before his 21st birthday and had netted more than 200 goals for club and country before turning 23, though serious knee injuries ravaged his time at Inter Milan and threatened to curtail his career.
After a long and arduous road to recovery his move to Real Madrid came amid an incredible redemption arc, becoming the club’s latest marquee addition after inspiring Brazil to success at the 2002 World Cup.
Ronaldo’s eight goals during the tournament in Japan and South Korea – including both in the 2-0 final win over Germany – catapulted him back to the pinnacle of the sport, the Brazilian forward proving the perfect Galactico addition for president Perez.
His first season in the famed all-white colours of Spain’s most successful club proved impressive, though it was his performance in Manchester that lives longest in the memory.
The latter stages of the Champions League and fixtures of this magnitude can often result in cagey affairs, but with the hosts in need of a comeback and Real’s wealth of attacking riches it resulted in an end-to-end classic.
It was Ronaldo who opened the scoring in a sucker-punch to Sir Alex Ferguson’s side who had begun the contest brightly, an incisive breakaway from the visitors resulting in the forward’s first of the evening.
Zinedine Zidane found Guti in a criminal amount of space inside the centre circle, the Spaniard taking one touch before weighting a ball into the path of Ronaldo as he spun in behind Rio Ferdinand.
Without breaking stride the Brazilian lashed home a finish inside Fabien Barthez’s near post, a crucial away goal and a dagger to the heart of the Red Devils’ hopes of securing progress in the tie.
Barthez will have been disappointed not to have done better, but it was an instinctive finish on the run from Ronaldo who gave the goalkeeper little time to adjust his feet before the ball burst into the bottom corner.
United – spurred on by the prospect of featuring in a Champions League final hosted at Old Trafford – roared back and levelled before half-time, Ruud van Nistelrooy turning in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s cross to spark hope of an improbable comeback.
The optimism that surrounded the home crowd at the interval was extinguished just minutes into the second period however, a wonderful footballing move from the visitors seeing Ronaldo net a crucial second away goal.
It was a carousel of possession from Madrid’s midfielders around the outside of the United penalty area, Luis Figo, Guti and Zidane all involved before the latter’s defence-splitting pass sent Roberto Carlos away to square for his grateful compatriot.
Ivan Helguera’s own goal levelled the scores once more almost immediately, but whenever the hosts thought they had a slight chance of turning the tide it was left to Ronaldo to shatter their dreams.
His hat-trick goal was the powerful pièce de résistance of an enthralling evening of action, picking up possession mid-way inside the United half before driving towards Barthez’s goal once more.
Perhaps panicked by his previous, the Red Devils’ defence backed off, a decision that came back to haunt in stunning style as Ronaldo unleashed an unstoppable drive from distance into the top corner.
It was another moment of magic from a player enjoying a defining performance on club football’s biggest stage, the crushing final blow to the home side as their Champions League dreams were left in tatters by Ronaldo’s brilliance.
David Beckham’s double off the substitutes’ bench against his future employers ensured it was Manchester United who finished victorious on the night, but it was an evening that belonged to just one man.
Ronaldo was substituted with more than 20 minutes of the game remaining and his side 6-3 ahead on aggregate, his departure from the pitch leading to a special moment as the home crowd stood to salute one of the finest footballers of a generation.
The Brazilian had just ended Manchester United’s hopes of winning a historic Champions League title in their own stadium, but this was an awe-inspiring performance from arguably the greatest number nine the game has seen.
Ronaldo may never have been quite the same player following his career-threatening injuries, but even the post-injury version was a player capable of producing spectacular moments on any occasion and against any opponent.
Even in the absence of the unstoppable acceleration that underpinned his emergence as the most exciting young talent the game has seen, he was a frightening proposition.
That night at Old Trafford saw O Fenômeno stand head and shoulders above even some of the finest players of his generation, a match-winning masterclass and performance which added yet another chapter to one of the most incredible of careers.
Those who witnessed it first hand knew they were audience to something special.