Date:Thursday November 8 2007
Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo have finally found their scoring boots in Europe's premier competition.
It's September 2004 (imagine that). An 18-year-old guy by the name of Wayne Rooney is included in Manchester United's starting line-up for the first time ever. Poor Fenerbahce were quick to discover that the boy had a special talent: he camly destroyed them by scoring a wonderful hat-trick to announce his arrival on the scene.
Such memorable debut can't be associated with Cristiano Ronaldo's name but it's undoubtable that this pair could be the symbol of the current Manchester United team. And given their prodigious talents there are somewhat surprising, not to say baffling statistics for you.
Between Rooney's debut and the first leg of last season's quarter-final at Rome United played 19 Champions League games, qualifiers not included - and the aggregate goal tally of Rooney and Ronaldo from these games stands at a hardly impressive 0. They were unable to find the net in 19 Champions League games while regularly demolishing hapless teams in England.
Now mediocrity and predictability is not something you would associate with these guys. It is ony fitting that from European no-hopers they suddenly became regular Champions League scorers, worthy candidates for the competition's golden boot.
Where it all started? In Rome, on a difficult April night. With United defending heroically with one man down, Ronaldo released Solskjaer on the right whose perfect cross was blasted home by Rooney to exorcise his own demons.
We lost the match but hardly anyone remembers it now as the events of the second leg completely overshadowed everything. I won't reflect now on a glorious night but on the performance of our two precocious youngsters who lit up the stage and though in their personal duel Rooney drew the first blood that night it was Ronaldo who claimed more plaudits at the end by scoring his first and second Champions League goal proper.
These two games included, the Rooney-Ronaldo pairing have scored 12 goals in their last 8 Champions League games. Rooney turned it around against Milan, Ronaldo won it for us at Sporting, Rooney sent Roma crashing to defeat again, Ronaldo fired past two a hapless Kiev side who only last night were on the receiving end of another fine display and a goal apiece by the great duo.
What is the reason of this spectacular improvement? Maturity, of course, plays a great part in it. These two are not the same two who went missing when United were 2-1 down at a thoroughly mediocre Benfica side - Rooney's heroics against Milan prove this, as well as Ronaldo's performance at Roma and at Sporting. Their game has improved a lot in the past three years but the improvement was so spectacular that it could not be traced only to something as gradual as maturing.
So probably the most important reason of their current run is their growing frustration and hunger for success they had when things did not go their way. They were more disappointed by their European failures than us fans, that's sure. And you could see the plain relief on their face when finally managed to break their hoodoo. It did wonders for their confidence as I'm sure they were starting to doubt whether they will ever score.
They have more belief in their own abilities than struggling with lingering doubts, you may tell me. Well, watch the highlights of United v Roma. With the Reds 3-0 up, Ronaldo goes forward at every opportunity, adopts a shoot on sight policy and is furious at every bad effort. When he finally hits the back of the net on 44 minutes and picks himself up he looks like as if he has just won the World Cup by scoring a hat-trick in the final. And that wasn't a very important goal, mind you.
Now their abilities are given free rein as they are not restricted by frustration and diminishing confidence. They've been touted as two of the most promising young players in Europe - and finally, they're living up to that billing in Europe. No new signing gives us better hope of winning the Champions League than their free-scoring form.
And may I add that Ronaldo's form could even be a cause for concern as he's nowhere near as mesmerising as for the biggest part of last season. That he still leads our goalscoring charts is a mark of his immense quality. And that bodes well for us.
Date:Thursday November 8 2007
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