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By ESPN Staff

Ferguson heaps praise on taunted Ronaldo

Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson hailed Cristiano Ronaldo after the Portugal winger returned home and produced a man-of-the-match display against Benfica at the Stadium of Light.

Twelve months after he left the same stadium in disgrace after an ill advised gesture, Ronaldo this time became Benfica's tormentor in chief as United recorded their first away win in the competition for three years.

Silencing the jeers of the home support, the 21-year-old set up Louis Saha for the visitors' winner on the hour and threatened a second throughout the latter stages as the Red Devils cemented their position at the head of Group F.

'Cristiano has been fantastic all season,' said Ferguson. 'He has taken a lot of criticism from the public but he has risen above it. He has not let it affect him and that shows great courage.

'He is showing a maturity which belies his age. He is only 21, but young players have to get through periods like this.'

Although Ronaldo has been jeered at every Premiership away ground this season, the former Sporting Lisbon player is unlikely to face the kind of intense barracking he received at the home of what once were his fiercest rivals.

'Who he played for in the past has obviously had something to do with the reaction of the crowd tonight,' said Ferguson.

'But the next time he comes to Portugal to play for his country they will probably be kissing his feet.'

Ferguson also saved special praise for Saha, who now has three goals in Europe this season and is quickly ending the doubt over his ability to replace free-scoring Dutchman Ruud van Nistelrooy.

'Louis has everything,' said Ferguson.

'He is quick and brave and gets so many assists.

'When he puts all parts of his game together he is an excellent player and now he is on a great goal-scoring run as well.'

Although they were unconvincing for long periods, United's victory has put them in pole position to advance into the knockout phase.

Ferguson's men now have a five-point cushion over tonight's opponents and FC Copenhagen, who visit Old Trafford in three weeks knowing they need a victory to put pressure on the Red Devils.

'Copenhagen need to win, so they will have to come out and play against us,' said Ferguson.

'Benfica now have to play Celtic twice as well and while we do not know what will happen there we know we can put ourselves in a great position if we keep our concentration and defend properly.'

The only downside of the victory for United was the failure of Wayne Rooney to end a barren streak in Europe that now extends to 11 games.

In fairness, the 20-year-old was hardly helped by being stationed on the left-hand side of midfield as United looked to nullify Benfica's threat.

'We defended well and while that might be anti-Manchester United to think that way, it is not a crime,' said Ferguson.

'We probably gave the ball away a bit too much in the first half and didn't open them up enough from midfield. But our counterattacking was excellent. Cristiano's pace means he is always an outlet and Louis took his chance really well.'

Benfica coach Fernando Santos admitted United had not been as adventurous as they were on their previous visit.

However, he conceded the tactic worked to perfection.

'United were more attacking last year but this season they had a different strategy, which obviously worked better,' he said.

'We controlled the game and given our domination, particularly in the first half, we should have scored.

'We had some good chances but luck was not on our side.'