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Old 16th March 2006, 11:19   #1
Paul Brooks

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Default The Ronaldo Challenge

The Ronaldo Challenge

Article by Nigel Smith

As thoughts turn to next season, the future of Christiano Ronaldo must rank as one of the most important issues facing Sir Alex Ferguson. If Rooney is undoubtedly the most coveted young footballer in Europe, then Ronaldo is not far behind. Like an overweight and balding newly-wed blessed with the favour of a beautiful bride, Sir Alex may well have feelings of pride mixed with anxiety when contemplating two world class players of such extravagant potential.

An indebted United, declining in status as a European power, are all too aware of the prospect of loosing the Portuguese star when still in his prime. Newspapers are already flying kites with stories of interest from ambitious Spanish and Italian teams. Real Madrid's need to re-build and their stated intention to invest in younger players is an ominous sign. It is to be hoped that Ronaldo is not lured away from Old Trafford, for he carries an enormous burden of creative responsibility in the current United formation. This is all the more astonishing given his age, his relative inexperience, plus three hard years of top class football and major tournaments without rest.

That says much about Ronaldo's impact since taking over from Beckham on the right flank but even more about the quality of players competing for a place in United's midfield. Ronaldo, when at the top of his game, is a marvellous sight. He is bold, capable of taking on and beating an opponent and brings a touch of the unexpected to United's play, a feature lacking since Eric Cantona called time on his Old Trafford career. Ronaldo boasts all the skills required of the very best too. He's versatile, two-footed, fast, tall for a winger and has proved he is of good temperament. The respect paid to Ronaldo by opposing teams - always two or more players around him whenever he gets the ball - tells its own story.

At just 20 years old, Ronaldo's youth does however affect his judgement. Ronaldo's decisions are too often wrong. He shoots when he should pass and shows, sometimes, a schoolboy tendency to perform one too many step-overs, thus holding up the play. As the complaints of Alan Smith and RVN have illustrated this season, Ronaldo's dallying in possession frustrates team mates and discourages them from making forward runs.

Ronaldo currently lacks the precision and industry of Beckham, whose deadliness at free-kicks and capacity for tracking back are only now getting due appreciation. His final ball often produces the sort of groans last heard more than a decade ago when Ryan Giggs was learning his trade on the left wing. Worst of all, the Portuguese wonder still goes to ground a little too easily for the English appetite. But when he plays like an old-fashioned winger, attacking the last defender and getting to the bye-line before launching pinpoint crosses, Ronaldo is devastating. In a largely disappointing season, the growing chemistry of the Neville-Ronaldo partnership has been a rare treat.

The attributes of Ronaldo are well known. Less obvious however, is his best position. This is the question Sir Alex must answer in his final year, a challenge made all the more intriguing by the emergence of Rossi. Sir Alex will have to blood the reserve team star soon if he is not to stifle Rossi's progress. Ferguson has said that Rossi is not sufficiently tested by second string football but has refused the option of sending him out on loan. So, should Rossi's eye for goal and terrific scoring record, albeit it in a less illustrious environment, bring him into first team contention, Ferguson could do worse than play Rossi on the flank, either in midfield or as part of a attacking trident. That would allow Ronaldo to move inside to a position from which he could give maximum expression to the full range of his talents without having to worry too much about defensive duties. Ronaldo has the athleticism and the intelligence to play off a front man. Dreams are made of Rooney, Rossi and Ronaldo exchanging high-fives in the future as their goals bulge the nets of opposing sides.

Rooney and Ronaldo share similar gifts but it is Rooney's extraordinary progression and sheer presence that may ultimately cast a shadow over the development of Ronaldo. By some distance the player of his generation, Rooney harnesses the directness and powerball shot of a Bobby Charlton to the zest and creative guile of a latter-day Daglish. The 'hole' position just behind the frontman, with its licence to roam, is his United destiny.

Yet, in any other team, it would surely be Ronaldo's too. It is the task of Sir Alex to blend a United side that allows Rooney to flourish whilst giving an appropriate platform to Ronaldo. Of course, great players can play together as Brazil and the United of the 1960's have demonstrated. The players' styles and temperaments must however, be complementary. Their egos cannot be helium-filled.

As Ronaldo matures and grows in authority at European and international level, he might be tempted to demand a more central role. Indeed, with the likes of Juventus already prowling in the background, it could be the sole condition for Ronaldo remaining at Old Trafford beyond the 2010 expiry date of his current contract. In that case, how could Ferguson allow Ronaldo the talisman role to which the 'White Pele' already has copyright? The next few years will be very interesting.
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