FootballPremier League

Man Utd Classics: Ronaldo and Rooney run riot in Rome as European glory awaits

April 3, 2020

DESPITE it being a major football city, Manchester United hadn’t played in Rome before 2007, yet in the space of one year they faced AS Roma six times. Four of those games were in April and won’t be easily forgotten.

United lost 1-2 in Rome in the first meeting between the clubs, a game which saw sustained violence outside the Olympic Stadium. Advised not to go anywhere near the Ponte Nenni where Roma’s ultras gathered, United’s hooligans did exactly that and fought a lengthy battle against chain wielding, ladder throwing, belt whipping Italians.

Innocent United fans were also picked off closer to the stadium – United and their fans were feeling vengeful a week later when Roma came to Old Trafford. United won 7-1. Cristiano Ronaldo and Michael Carrick scored two each, it was Alan Smith’s best game in red – and against a team with the best defensive record in the competition.

“I was fresh and hungry and told the manager to use me in every game,” Alan Smith told me. “I had twelve months of frustration to take out in nine games! It was incredible and Old Trafford is definitely at its best for a Champions League game. We came back from 1-2 in the first leg and Totti had a chance of putting them ahead.”

“Everything we did that night came off,” said Sir Alex Ferguson. "For the second goal we produced a six-man move of one touch passing. Alan Smith scored from a Ryan Giggs pass between the two centre backs. First time – bang, in the net. Brilliant goal.”

Amid headlines such as ‘Seventh Heaven in Theatre of Dreams’, ‘Rout of Roma’ and ‘Seven wonders of sublime United’, Ferguson said: “Roma were a bloody good side too. They had Daniele de Rossi, Cristian Chivu and Francesco Totti and we absolutely slaughtered them.”

The following season, United drew Roma in the group stage and won 1-0 at home, and drew 1-1 away, when they already through having made nine changes to bring in fringe players Danny Simpson, Gerard Pique, Chris Eagles and Dong. At the quarter-final stage, United drew Roma yet again. The first leg, on April 1st, was no laughing matter.

“Roma 3 Manchester 0,” predicted the man selling newspaper outside Roma Termini as he held up three fingers to prove his point. United were strong: Van der Sar, Brown, Evra, Carrick, Ferdinand, Vidic, Ronaldo, Scholes, Rooney, Anderson and Park. Hargreaves, O’Shea and Tevez would come off the bench.

Ronaldo was having his best season so far and Rome was where the 2,800 travelling United fans (over 4,000 tickets were sold but over 1,000 were left unclaimed by fans who wanted a travel credit without travelling to Rome) sang their new song ‘Viva Ronaldo!’ really loud. It made a change from the previous year when carabinieri waded into United fans on Olimpico’s vast sweeping, single tiered curva sud, lashing out indiscriminately with their batons. Fans who’d made gestures of peace weren’t spared a beating by men who looked like they were enjoying it.

Now it was different. “Viva Ronaldo! Viva Ronaldo! Running down the wing, hear United sing, Viva Ronaldo.” The Romans had every right to feel confused since they’d been singing a song to that tune for years. Ronaldo scored a magnificent header, proof that he could perform on the biggest stages – plenty had suggested otherwise: that he was a flat track bully who’d only hammer the weakest foes.

Ronaldo did nothing in Milan the previous season as AC knocked United out in the semi-final second leg with a 3-0 Gennaro Gatusso-inspired win. The Milanese press thought he was overhyped, that Milan were a cut above Roma – which they were. But United had peaked too soon in Europe in 2007, their A-listers were either missing or went missing. United would learn from that.

Besides, Ronaldo was improving each season and he was indiscriminate who he scored against, strong or weak. He’d get eight goals in the Champions League. He’d just been named Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year for the second successful year and was on his way to 42 goals that season, overtaking George Best’s 40-year record as he scored with his left and scored ‘with his riggghhhht’.

In Rome, Ronaldo sprinted 40 yards to meet a beautiful chipped cross from Paul Scholes. He headed it in powerfully for his 30th goal of the season just before half time. Roma’s attack was missing Totti, their defenders had barely realised Ronaldo had arrived to meet the ball. Simon Barnes in The Times wrote: “He’d be a pretty useful goalscorer even if he couldn’t kick a ball.”

Ronaldo had ample assistance from the deepest squad United have ever boasted. Ronaldo, Tevez, Rooney, Saha, Giggs, Nani, Scholes and Park in attack. It was Rooney who made it 2-0 and United claimed a first win in Italy since 2003. “He goes by the name of Wayne Rooney,” chanted the away fans as ONE Roma fan tried to charge the away end. He wanted some.

United’s players were on a major high. They felt like they were playing for the best team in the world and noticed that people were starting to compare them to United’s treble winners. Ferguson was not having that and warned: ‘You’ve won nothing yet.’ But they also knew he was excited by them, especially when he said: ‘You will be the worst team in the world if you don’t win this competition.’

United beat Roma 1-0 at home, another goal from the Argentine the players called Carlito, though De Rossi missed a penalty. Ferguson’s men overcome Barcelona in the semis, Chelsea in the final.

 “I remember talking to one of the best coaches around, said Ferguson, “and he said: ‘You know what, it’s not Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Henry and Messi. It’s Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez.”

And, although there was ample proof of that in the semis and the final, it was in Rome where they showed why they were blossoming into being the best team in England, Europe and the world.