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Nov 30, 2008

A derby day to forget for Ronaldo

The first-half chorus was factually true. The chant after the interval was all the more gleeful as he trudged off in seeming disbelief. Cristiano Ronaldo is not, however often Sir Alex Ferguson claims he should be, cherished by opposing fans. On an afternoon when they had little else to savour, the Manchester City supporters could at least cheer the dismissal of their nemesis.

Sent-off at City for the second time and leaving the field to the sound of ''cheat'', Ronaldo contrived to cement a mutual dislike with the blue half of Manchester. The suggestions that he would swap the city's dominant club for its wealthier rival seemed far-fetched in the immediate aftermath of the August takeover. They seem still sillier now.

Yet City normally only have the chance to gloat once in a blue moon. Following a derby double last season, Ronaldo provided a third moment they enjoyed. Booked nine minutes earlier for fouling Shaun Wright-Phillips, the Portuguese met Wayne Rooney's corner with his hand. The expressions of incredulity have been seen before, but they did not dissuade referee Howard Webb from sending him off.

"I have seen it again and he was trying to protect himself from the ball hitting his face, he may have got a little shove as well,'' said Sir Alex Ferguson. "He thought he'd heard the referee's whistle. But I'm not going to get into the refereeing; we'd be here all day.''

Mark Hughes provided a more credible explanation: ''I don't think he [Webb] had any choice. I don't know what motive he had for doing it. Why didn't he head it? It's a soft sending-off, but he had to go.''

It was not the way to begin what should prove a memorable few days. Ronaldo will receive the Ballon D'Or this week. He got the carte rouge today. He has earned the acclaim of all of Europe, and a couple of cautions from a former policeman from Rotherham.

In the circumstances, then, it was comparatively harmless for Ronaldo to have been told, by the majority of the City of Manchester Stadium: ''You're not Robinho.'' He is not, but the duel between the two showmen was eagerly anticipated.

Instead, there was a shortage of stepovers, few opponents could complain to the club physio that they were suffering from twisted blood and the swerving shots and delicate chips that embarrass goalkeepers were never seen.

Robinho, following a series of stellar displays at home, was subdued. ''He hasn't trained all week,'' said Hughes. ''He had an injection to play today. He's been our talisman.'' On this occasion, he was not.

Robinho spent much of the match stranded on the left touchline. This was a rarity in that he did not pepper the goal - or the stands - with shots. Ronaldo, meanwhile, mustered one header over the bar but ceded the match-winner's role to Rooney.

While the entertainers failed to deliver, their accomplices compensated. It was fitting Rooney determined the derby and, rather than Robinho, Wright-Phillips provided City's inspiration.

Wright-Phillips was unplayable. It was probably less a tactic than a product of sheer speed inconveniencing a series of opponents, but United took it in turn to halt him by illegal methods.

Darren Fletcher, Ronaldo, Patrice Evra and Michael Carrick were all booked. Hughes did not complain though several of his counterparts may have done had their players suffered similar treatment.

His side came closest when Micah Richards failed to turn Stephen Ireland's half-volley into a virtually unguarded net and, deep into injury time, when Richard Dunne was denied by Evra on the goal-line. A matter of seconds later, Rooney almost scored from 50 yards before Joe Hart, who had gone up for a City corner, made a box-to-box run to somehow save it.

The goal itself was rather less memorable. Hart pushed Michael Carrick's shot out into Rooney's path and, from three yards, he scored. It was a deserved strike. Ferguson added: ''In the first half we were absolutely magnificent; we dominated the match.'' Hughes admitted: ''In the first half, we showed them a little bit too much respect.''

Respect has been a watchword of the season. Ronaldo is granted little by opposing fans. As a team United earned it. They won without a major contribution from the probable European Footballer of the Year and, in the end, without him on the pitch.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Wayne Rooney
Provided his trademark bullish aggression, but complemented it with some deft touches in an influential display. Following Ronaldo's dismissal, he proved a highly effective left-sided midfielder as United held on.

MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: This was an unwanted illustration of the gulf between them and United. The electric Wright-Phillips and an improved second-half performance apart, they should derive little encouragement. Darius Vassell's selection has bemused a section of their fans and, whether on the right or in the middle, he played a negligible part in the first half before being replaced. The City supporters who believe Elano is a superior option had their case strengthened.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Away wins have been a comparative rarity for United this season, but this was deserved. Rooney illuminated the game, but Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic proved suitably reliable in the heart of the back four. The full-backs, Evra and Rafael, counter-attacked at speed in the first half and attended to their defensive duties thereafter, while Michael Carrick, as he often is, was excellent in the midfield.

THE TEMPLE OF DOOM: Sir Alex Ferguson coined an unflattering nickname for City's stadium, but they found a way of justifying it. While the club have long played Mancunian music, Joy Division was unlikely to lift the crowd's morale at half-time.

FORWARD THINKING: Two substitutions revealed the respective managers' thinking on a couple of underachieving strikers. Hughes opted to bring Daniel Sturridge on ahead of Jo, suggesting the £19 million Brazilian is some way down in his ranking of the forwards. Then, when Dimitar Berbatov was withdrawn, Ryan Giggs was selected ahead of Carlos Tevez to operate as United's lone attacker.

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