Greatest seasons: Ronaldo fires Manchester United to glory at home and abroad
There are few things in sport more satisfying than watching an athlete fulfil his or her potential. In this digitised age of instant judgements, even more so. Fuelled by Youtube clips and social media, sportsmen and women are tested like never before. The pitfalls are bountiful. They are hyped beyond reason – built up and placed under a microscopic lens where every action is scrutinised. And then, if performance drops below expectations, even for a second, knocked down relentlessly. Within this context, witnessing an athlete rise above all obstacles to truly master their craft is one of the most awe-inspiring sights around.
2007/08 was the year Cristiano Ronaldo evolved into the best player in the world – an award bestowed upon him by FIFA when he was crowned 2008 World Player of the Year. Prior to that season, Ronaldo’s development at Manchester United had been gradual. He started as “the wee show-off who was desperate to convince everyone how good he was” as Sir Alex Ferguson once described him. By 2006/07 he had honed his incredible natural talent sufficiently to win an unprecedented trio of individual awards – PFA Player of the Year, Young Player of the Year and Football Writers’ Player of the Year – as the Portuguese youngster helped catapult the Red Devils to the 2006/07 Premier League trophy, their first league title in four years.
But if those four years showed a player learning how to walk and, subsequently, run, 2007/08 was the year the boy from Funchal learned how to fly.
In one of, if not the finest individual seasons in Premier League history, Ronaldo scored 42 goals in all competitions. In the league he hit 31 goals in 34 appearances at a rate of a goal every 88.6 minutes. If those numbers appear staggering enough in their own right, it’s worth a reminder that Ronaldo was only 22 at the start of this jaw-dropping season. And was playing on the wing.
Redefining the winger
At the time, the very concept of a winger scoring so many goals was nigh on unheard of. Not long after his 23rd birthday Ronaldo eclipsed George Best's 40-year-old record of 32 goals from a winger in one season. He fell just short of equalling Denis Law's record tally of 46 goals in all competitions at United. His minutes-per-goal ratio that year is also superior to Luis Suarez’s rate of a goal every 95.5 minutes in 2013/14, though Suarez racked up double CR7’s six assists.
If the stats are impressive, they do little to encapsulate just how brilliant Ronaldo was, in a year he was instrumental in spearheading a quest for glory that culminated in Manchester United’s league and Champions League double, secured in the soaking rain of a cool night in Moscow. Quite simply, it was the year Ronaldo revolutionised the role of a winger in modern football.
Like Suarez in 2013/14, Ronaldo’s 2007/08 campaign began under a cloud. In United’s second game of the season Ronaldo was sent off in a 1-1 draw at Portsmouth for appearing to aim a headbutt at Richard Hughes. Ferguson claimed his star winger had been provoked but fined his player anyway. “He has fallen for it,” said Ferguson. “You have to have a bit of calmness. You have to remind yourself you're a better player than they are.”
A three-match ban followed but Ronaldo learnt his lesson and returned from his suspension a more mature player. He scored his first goal of the campaign against his former club Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League, a low, sweeping header at the Estádio José Alvalade for which he implored pardon. A goal rush was coming. Over the course of the campaign Ronaldo would show just what a rounded, uniquely talented player he had become not just through the sheer number of goals scored but also by their dazzling variety.
Bullet headers like the one at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome in the Champions League quarter final, an iconic header that mixed the brute strength and neck muscle fortitude of the game’s all-time greatest headers of a ball with the sheer athleticism and hangtime of an NBA superstar. Long-range stunners. The Ronaldo trademark – a rapid, Cruyff turn style flick from one foot to the other to pull the hapless defender out of position before slamming the ball past the keeper, like those against Dynamo Kiev and West Ham, in the opening minutes of a crucial game in the title race on the penultimate matchday.
Gravity-defying free-kicks like those against Portsmouth, Bolton, Sporting and Sunderland. Ronaldo redefined the art of the free-kick, perfecting a style that sent the ball rocketing off straight as an arrow and yet simultaneously loaded with dip and swerve. The technique caused nationwide debate. Pundits strived to uncover Ronaldo’s ‘secret’ and all kinds of theories were put forward, from his standing stance to hitting the ball on the valve. “The secret? I will not reveal it, for I would be giving a trump card to my opponents,” Ronaldo quipped. Cool as you like.
The stunning nature and variety of Ronaldo’s goals was one aspect that propelled him into the pantheon of Premier League greats, but an equally important development in 2007/08 was a growing ability to perform when it mattered. Question marks had remained about Ronaldo’s big-game mentality. “Sure, he’s a great player, but can he do it against the best?” people asked. It was the final hurdle for Ronaldo to leap over in order to win universal acceptance. This he achieved.
Big game player
He scored his first ever goal against United’s hated rivals Liverpool in a 3-0 win. He scored home and away against title rivals Arsenal. He scored key goals in the knockout stages of the Champions League against Lyon and Roma. And though his copybook was blotted with penalty misses in the Champions League semi final and final, it was Ronaldo who opened the scoring in that Champions League final against Chelsea in Moscow with another towering header. "I have been lucky to have played with a lot of the top, top players and Cristiano is at the top,” Paul Scholes raved midway through the campaign. “To score the amounts of goal from his position is nothing short of amazing.”
Individually Ronaldo was exceptional – a stepover, a shimmy, a burst of pace and he was away. Few defenders could cope. His link-up play with fellow frontmen Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney was also outstanding. The trio formed a phenomenal partnership, perhaps best highlighted in a 4-0 win against Aston Villa in which they ripped Villa apart like savages. “If you could ever try to set the benchmark, that's it,” Villa manager Martin O’Neill said, stunned. Ronaldo scored a backheeled flick through a Villa player’s legs. It was another day at the office.
In the Premier League era only seven players have scored 30 goals or more in a league campaign. Cristiano Ronaldo is the only man to do so playing from a position out wide and the second youngest to do so after Andy Cole in 1993/94. It was the year Ronaldo ensured his name would be forever etched into Manchester United’s history. The year he became the best player in the world.
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