By Jim Wirth
To be cheered from the pitch by one's own supporters is accolade enough - to be given a standing ovation by opposition fans is a true honour.
As he gave way to Santiago Solari after 67 minutes of Real Madrid CF's 4-3 defeat against Manchester United FC on Wednesday night having scored a marvellous hat-trick, home and away supporters rose as one to greet Ronaldo. "It was unforgettable," said the Brazilian. "I will never forget it."
Those who believe that Ronaldo is the greatest striker currently plying his trade in football were given plenty of ammunition for their argument at Old Trafford. Madrid, may have gone on to lose the game once Ronaldo had been substituted, but the Brazilian's genius had settled the tie, with the reigning European champions winning 6-5 on aggregate.
In the first leg, it was Ronaldo's striking partner Raúl González who won the plaudits, scoring twice and being hailed by Manchester United FC manager Sir Alex Ferguson. "Real buy these big players like Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo but I think the best player in the world is Raúl," Sir Alex said.
Value for money
However, with Raúl sidelined after an appendix operation, it was Ronaldo's turn to take centre stage on Wednesday and prove that the €45m that Madrid paid Internazionale FC for his services this summer had bought the club a thoroughbred winner and not, as some had suggested, a white elephant.
After just 12 minutes, Ronaldo spirited past his marker Rio Ferdinand to crash a low drive beyond Fabien Barthez for Madrid's opener. Five minutes after the break, the Brazilian scrambled a loose ball over the line for his second, but he saved his best until last.
With 59 minutes gone, Ronaldo gave Madrid the lead for the third time, gathering a ball from Luis Figo, twisting through the United defence and lashing the ball past Barthez with a fierce drive from the edge of the box.
"He is gradually coming into form and becoming the player we want him to be," said his coach Vicente del Bosque. "Tonight was his night and he proved that with the goals he managed to score.
We only created three opportunities for him all night, but he converted all three."
Certainly, Ronaldo's killer instinct is returning. The eight goals that won him the golden shoe at the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals showed that the Brazilian had lost none of his sharpness during his lengthy battle with injury, and 19 goals in 26 games for Madrid this season have only served to underline that.
Wednesday's hat-trick saw Ronaldo pick up his fifth goal in three games for his club, and with just two more games separating Ronaldo from a quick return trip to Old Trafford for the Champions League final, he could not have chosen a better time to come into form.
'My best game'
"It was my best game in a Real Madrid shirt," he admitted after the game. "
The three goals were very important and that's what counts. That it was me who scored them, or anyone else, doesn't matter. I owe the goals to them, my team-mates. Without the work of the team it would have been impossible."
Madrid's next challenge is to break the resistance of Juventus FC in the two-legged semi-final. With the Serie A side's defence cast as the immovable object, and Ronaldo as the unstoppable force, expect sparks to fly.
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