The Cristiano Ronaldo header that gave him a hat-trick, his 807th career goal, and claimed this pivotal game in the late-season shootout for Champions League qualification oozed quality and desire.
Nine minutes remained when the 37-year-old bulldozed Matt Doherty aside, eyes fixed only on Alex Telles’s corner from the right, and connected his forehead to the ball as he cartwheeled through the air before hitting the turf.
From here ecstasy and the ringing out of “Viva Ronaldo” from home fans who could not quite believe their hero had done, again, what he just loves to do: wrest the story his way.
All of this before the watching Tom Brady, the seven-time record Super Bowl winner, Ronaldo’s hat-trick taking him past Josef Bican’s all-time count for the highest number ever.
United’s potential XI was the center of intrigue: would Bruno Fernandes’s illness exclude him? And it is. Would Marcus Rashford, who is considering his future, return? And it is. Had David de Gea tested positive for Covid? And it is. Except, it was a false result and a second lateral flow plus a PCR cleared him to play.
In Fernandes United lost a fifth of their 45 league goals, in the returning Ronaldo a fifth was restored. Spurs had done a job on Manchester City last month via rapier breaks yet here they would mix it up via passages of keep-ball, as when Sergio Reguilón, Rodrigo Bentancur, Harry Kane, and Son Heung-min exchanged passes between them.
Rashford’s demeanor has recently been flat but there was sparkle in the way he threaded Paul Pogba in behind, though Ronaldo could not finish the Frenchman’s pass. Next the effervescent Jadon Sancho drifted onto Harry Maguire’s chip, found Ronaldo, who let fly: the ball hit Eric Dier’s hand in the area but the referee, Jonathan Moss, was not interested.
Now, though, the Portuguese caused all inside the stadium to sit up. Raphaël Varane tapped to Fred who backheeled a flick to the No 7: with Dier backing off the centre-forward struck the sweetest of 25-yard finishes past Hugo Lloris, who seemed to struggle for spring, and United were ahead.
Cue delirium from the Old Trafford faithful and their side becoming a red blur in the following exchanges, Ronaldo dropping off the front to link with Diogo Dalot, and the shaven-bald Pogba forcing a save from Lloris.
United do this, though. Dominate and seem to convince they are far superior then fall away. The point was underlined when Ben Davies beat De Gea and Antonio Conte celebrated before it was ruled offside. Could United assert true control, then, or would Spurs find a way to burgle their host as they did City? The answer seemed yes to the latter when a Son corner was headed goalward before Dalot cleared. And, when the impressive Bentancur pickedpocketed Pogba near the visitors’ area, he prodded to Kane, and a quick counter was launched.
This conveyed how unstable United remained and they were to concede when those in white flooded their territory in a more patient approach, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg stepping up from his defensive-midfield role to add numbers. Nemanja Matic felled Kane and when Dier’s free-kick hit the wall Dejan Kulusevski collected, beat Sancho, and crossed: the ball hit Telles and unlike his Dier decision, Moss pointed to the spot.
Kane made no mistake, beating De Gea to the latter’s right, yet United had the perfect riposte three minutes later. Matic dropped a ball over the top, Sancho rolled a cross in from the left, and a delighted Ronaldo restored the lead.
United are the kings of the second-half collapse so here was another test. When Davies flung himself at a header, Son hoped to race in behind, and Bentancur slide-tackled Pogba, Spurs signaled Conte had surely told them all about their hosts’ softness following the interval.
A sweeping move that took in Ronaldo, Sancho and Rashford took United upfield did, though, allow them to keep Spurs where they would want: at arm’s length and forcing a Davies intervention to stop Rashford taking aim with a point-blank header.
There was a flow to the contest that made it entertaining fare. At any moment either team might score, as when Kulusevski squared to Son and he missed from yards out. Conte’s men were disappointed but the way Højbjerg, Bentancur, Kulusevski and Cristian Romero squeezed United’s midfield – Pogba in particular – gave them a genuine chance of another equaliser.
And so it proved. Here, Kane held off Varane an the ball went left to Reguilón who crossed and a hapless Harry Maguire stabbed in for an own-goal that sent the traveling support into party mode.
But, the captain was saved by Ronaldo and when the Portuguese was replaced soon after his game-winning bullet-header his reception was rapturous.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism