By Adam Szreter at Old Trafford
A high-class hat-trick by Ronaldo ensured a fourth successive UEFA Champions League semi-final for Real Madrid CF after a memorable night of football. If next month's final, at the same stadium, matches the quality displayed tonight by two of the world's most famous clubs then we have much to look forward to.
Beckham out, McManaman in
Both coaches sprang major surprises in their team selection, Sir Alex Ferguson leaving England captain David Beckham on the bench and Vicente del Bosque picking Beckham's erstwhile international team-mate, Steve McManaman, in midfield.
Van Nistelrooij chance
With a full house to roar them on come what may, United began in determined fashion with Juan Sebastián Verón, back after a six-week lay-off, looking to pull the strings in midfield. But the first chance fell, almost inevitably, to Ruud van Nistelrooij. The leading scorer in this season's competition cut inside Michel Salgado before unleashing a fierce drive from a tight angle which Iker Casillas did well to tip over.
Ronaldo on target
Madrid seemed happy to soak up the early pressure but their passing was crisp and precise, and when Guti, playing in a surprisingly withdrawn role, picked out Ronaldo in the inside-right channel, United were exposed. The Brazilian took full advantage, slipping past Rio Ferdinand before driving right-footed past Fabien Barthez at the near post.
Barthez to the rescue
United, as is their custom, refused to be demoralised and continued to press with Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Ryan Giggs becoming more and more prominent in support of Van Nistelrooij. But Madrid almost caught them out again when Luis Figo's mis-hit shot had to be turned over the bar by Barthez.
As the half wore on United warmed to their task. Solskjær was centimetres away from turning in a low cross from Van Nistelrooij, Giggs flashed a shot just wide and Solskjær, again, drove straight at Casillas. Finally they broke through two minutes before the break, Giggs finding Solskjær on the right and Van Nistelrooij converting the cross from close range.
United were suddenly in the ascendancy and might have taken the lead in first-half injury time when first Solskjær and then Van Nistelrooij were denied by the alertness of Casillas. However, a bad miss from McManaman served as a reminder of how much United still had to do.
It took Madrid just five minutes of the second half to take the lead on the night. Luis Figo had hit the bar after mesmerising the United defence, who were unable to clear the danger and eventually Ronaldo was on hand to turn home a pass from Roberto Carlos.
United hit back straight away, Iván Helguera diverting a Verón shot into his own net, and Casillas then saved outstandingly from Solskjær and Verón before Ronaldo applied the coup de grâce for Madrid. Fed by Figo and twisting and turning his way towards goal, he unleashed a ferocious shot from the edge of the area that flew past Barthez.
There was still a trademark free-kick and another more scrambled effort from substitute Beckham that gave United victory on the night, but the plaudits belonged to Madrid and Ronaldo, who left to a standing ovation from Madrid and United fans alike.