Cristiano Ronaldo proved the nemesis of his old club Sporting Clube de Portugal once again as his injury-time free-kick completed a 2-1 comeback victory for Manchester United FC at Old Trafford. In the process, the Portugal winger – scorer of the only goal when the teams met in Lisbon in September – secured first place in Group F for United, this fifth straight victory leaving them five points clear of AS Roma.
Yet it was not a straightforward success for United, who trailed at half-time to defender Abel's spectacular effort from the right wing. United levelled in the 61st minute through Carlos Tévez and for Sporting this defeat, together with Roma's win in Kiev, confirms their elimination from the competition. However, while they may rue dropping points at the death for the second successive match, Sporting at least have the consolation of knowing third place, and a berth in the last 32 of the UEFA Cup, is theirs.
Speaking before the game, Sir Alex Ferguson had reflected how "some teams come to Old Trafford inspired but some teams come and freeze"; Sporting belonged firmly in the former category. Paulo Bento's men had the first effort of note after 12 minutes when João Moutinho dragged a shot wide of the far post and although Louis Saha was equally profligate after Ronaldo's delightful flick had sent him clear, the visitors drew first blood in the 21st minute. It was a goal out of nothing, Sporting working the ball, via Miguel Veloso, from the left to the right flank where full-back Abel advanced into a crossing position. Rather than deliver a centre, Abel, after a quick look across, rifled the ball with deadly precision inside the near post to leave goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak red-faced. Not a bad way to score your first UEFA Champions League goal.
Sporting's travelling supporters thought they had a second when, from a half-cleared free-kick, the impressive Anderson Polga fired the ball back towards goal and Liedson stabbed it past Kuszczak, only to be denied by the assistant's flag. With United players surrendering possession with uncharacteristic ease, Sporting remained in the ascendancy. Polga hooked a shot at Kuszczak following another corner while at the other end, Sporting's players worked overtime to deny United space. To counter this, Sir Alex made changes for the second half, sending on Ryan Giggs and Tévez in place of Darren Fletcher and Nani and switching from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2.
The improvement was immediate and chances soon came. Ronaldo just failed to connect cleanly with Giggs's free-kick, then Saha dwelt too long on the ball when teed up by Ronaldo. Although Nemanja Vidić headed narrowly wide, the pressure eventually told. Following Patrice Evra's trademark surge into the box, Saha laid the ball back to Ronaldo and his low shot was deflected into the net off a combination of Tévez and visiting defender Marián Had. United sought a second but Rui Patrício, showing no signs of stage fright on his European debut, saved with his feet from both Ronaldo and substitute Owen Hargreaves. Veloso threatened with a long-range attempt on to the top of the net for Sporting, yet the traffic was now one-way and United got their reward when Ronaldo arrowed the dead ball inexorably beyond Rui Patrício.