Martin Samuel: Ronaldo tricks and flicks show up Ibrahimovic

25 February 2009 09:14
Zlatan Ibrahimovic postured like a great player, Cristiano Ronaldo played like one. The grand duel went the way of the formbook.

The player who has every individual accolade in football on his coffee table at the moment came out the winner. The pretender to his crown looked exactly that. All that Ronaldo did not possess last night was luck.

He should have had the tie won by half-time, let alone the match. He came close with two headers and two free-kicks and set team-mates up with another pair of chances. Ibrahimovic had a shot which skirted the corner flag and a couple of decent passes. The gulf in influence was extraordinary.

Hard luck: Ronaldo displays his frustration after another near miss against Inter Milan, but the night was even more disappointing for Zlatan Ibrahimovic (below).

At least Ibrahimovic could be good for the Italian tourist trade. Carry on like this and English supporters are going to start travelling to Serie A matches to see what they have been missing. It is unfathomable that a player who regularly attracts such exceptional plaudits for his performances in the domestic league, week in and week out, should be so consistently unimpressive against Premier League opposition in Europe.

Maybe this is a sign of the times in Italy. If Inter are the best there is, this is hardly a golden age for Serie A. Ibrahimovic improved marginally in the second half, but that is not saying much. At his best, he was the poor man's Dimitar Berbatov. As good as Ronaldo? Not even close.

Of course, United remain vulnerable having failed to score an away goal. In this way, Sir Alex Ferguson's gamble in leaving Wayne Rooney on the bench did not pay off. He introduced him late and, maybe, involved earlier he could have secured a victory.

 Inter 0 Man Utd 0: How the action unfolded at the San Siro

Inter 0 Man Utd 0: Fergie lets Jose off the hook as Red Devils draw a blank

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Yet Ferguson will not feel overly dispirited because his team had enough chances to win, and Ronaldo's performance alone suggests he is preparing for a big game at Old Trafford, when Rooney will surely start.

So how was Ronaldo better than Ibrahimovic? Let me count the ways. He was a better header of the ball. A bigger threat from free-kicks. He ran with the ball to greater purpose. His shots were more dangerous.

He drew more fouls, legitimately, too. And his passing? Well, let us be generous and call that aspect of the game a draw. Ibrahimovic passed the ball very nicely. He just did not do it to great effect all that often.

This was the game that Ronaldo should have had against AC Milan two years ago. He was certainly capable of it back then. He has been for years actually, but maybe not in his head. Only in the last two seasons has Ronaldo been able to marry his technical excellence with the mental strength to take that talent to the best teams at the biggest stadiums in the world and dominate games. He did so here, and Inter got lucky denying him.

Feeling the heat: Inter boss Jose Mourinho sails close to the wind with referee Luis Medina Cantalejo

Jose Mourinho will be special indeed if that good fortune holds a second time. Looking at the two groups of players here, if Inter are to progress at Old Trafford, it will have to be the old-fashioned way, the Porto way, smash and grab, as it was five years ago when Mourinho survived against United in fortuitous circumstances on his way to winning the Champions League.

Nemanja Vidic will be back at Old Trafford, though, and if Inter could not find a way through here, there is no reason to suspect they will when United's player of the season returns to the defensive line.

Usually the master psychologist, Mourinho may have made a mistake here by rattling Ronaldo's cage with unflattering comparisons to Ibrahimovic before the game. Players always claim not to be distracted by such twitterings but it was as if Ronaldo came here with the intention of proving a point. His first half was magnificent, a constant bundle of energy where Ibrahimovic burst into life only in shudders like a sound system with a short in the wire.

Mourinho had built up the bout between Ronaldo, the best player in the world, and Ibrahimovic, the man who would like to believe that he is, but in the boxing ring the man in the red corner would have had his arm raised in triumph long before the end.

The odd eye-catching pass aside, Ibrahimovic was rendered redundant by a makeshift United defence and it was a pity Ronaldo's best work was done at Inter's end, as it did not draw the roars of appreciation it merited.

Maybe that is our fault, too.

Causing havoc: Ronaldo runs Inter ragged as Chivu tries desperately to stop him

The repertoire is familiar and we may be too blasé about it now. We no longer ooh and aah over the blur of stepovers, dummies, flicks and tricks that are executed, often in mid-stride. We should. Inter are by far the best team in Italy, remember, one of the best teams in the world in fact, and they had nobody who could execute anything like it.

They did not have an aerial threat like Ronaldo, either — where are they now, those people who said he chickened out against Manchester City earlier in the season — and two of the goals he could have scored demonstrated a prowess that neither Ibrahimovic, nor partner Adriano, possessed.

The free-kicks we know, too.

The five steps back, the one to the side, the trajectory, fierce and low and never more than a hair's breadth from the target. No matter how Mourinho has attempted to undermine him with comparisons to pretenders, no matter how many rivals are championed in his place, there truly is nobody quite like Ronaldo now.

What was proved at the San Siro last night was that, man for man, United have a better team than Inter: and one man for one man, they are better by some distance.

 Inter 0 Man Utd 0: How the action unfolded at the San Siro

Inter 0 Man Utd 0: Fergie lets Jose off the hook as Red Devils draw a blank

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Source: Daily_Mail