Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

Hargreaves shines as stand-in for Ronaldo

"Ideally, everyone would like to have the stepovers and overhead kicks and be like Ronaldo. But we all have abilities and you learn what you do well." When Owen Hargreaves spoke candidly about his own limitations a few weeks back there was no hint of a yearning to show down the right flank at Old Trafford what, from his position on the substitute's bench, he has been watching the Portuguese deliver most of this season.

Last night he provided precisely that. The hair gel was missing, the boots white not red and Ronaldo does not pull his socks up quite so high, but it might for all the world have been United's 37-goal man shepherding ball after ball down the right flank.



Hargreaves seemed to have been waiting for this opportunity all his life. He might have been signed as a holding midfielder for European nights – after Sir Alex Ferguson admired his battling displays quelling Milan's Kaka and Lyons' Juninho, in the Champions League for Bayern Munich – but he did not waste much time making himself at home in Ronaldo's berth.



The game was four minutes old when Carlos Tevez first released him down the right. A right-footed cross of the Beckham class was headed clear by Juan as Anderson waited.



There were occasional retreats to type for Hargreaves: a clattering challenge to dispossess David Pizarro and start another move which saw another of his own crosses dealt with. But make no mistake – he was here to do what Ronaldo does, morphing between the flank and central channel, and Old Trafford had to wait less than 10 minutes for the improbable sight of Hargreaves sent racing through on goal by Ryan Giggs. Doni's alertness denied him, but it was on the same piece of turf that Hargreaves displayed a skill he only gets the chance to show at Carrington. A 30-yard lofted pass from Giggs was taken down, left-footed with all the aplomb of Wayne Rooney. This time Juan intervened as he shaped to shoot with his right.



There were more of the hidden talents which Bayern fans probably know more about than United, such as the decision-making which saw Hargreaves deliver a first-time cross towards Giggs, after Tevez released him into space when others might have gone for glory.



It was a first half of such utter dominance that it is hard to believe that United – playing mostly with squad players – will ever have a better chance of reclaiming the Champions League.



Hargreaves could be forgiven for thinking he was in dreamland. Ferguson's decision to play Ji-Sung Park down the right flank in Rome was eye-catching because of the impression it gave that Hargreaves had slipped yet further down the pecking order. He is not utterly free of injury worries – the tendonitis that ruined the early part of his season can still flare up – but would have hoped for more than the solitary European start (in Lyons) before this night. Michael Carrick's resurgence of late has seen his hopes further diminish.



This was a night of such supremacy that even Gary Neville took a place in central midfield when he arrived to a thunderous welcome nine minutes before the end. But by then Hargreaves had provided his most eloquent reminder that he is the man to play when Ronaldo's resting up. Taking a pass from Tevez on 70 minutes, skipping down the right flank and crossing, inch perfect, for the diving header which put Roma out of sight.



"Ferguson followed and tracked Hargreaves for a long time so I don't think playing him was presumptuous [about our threat]," Luciano Spalletti said later. Ferguson was more succinct. "He was our man of the match," he said.

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