After the kicks, the shoves and the whistles had come to nothing in the Stadio Olimpico, Italy awoke yesterday to a curious sense of longing for the player it somehow just could not abhor.
"Can you imagine him in a blue shirt? It's useless even to dream of it," brooded Corriere della Sera in one of the day's more surreal tributes to Cristiano Ronaldo. The accompanying headlines will only seem breathless to those familiar with the player's ability. "Ronaldo: that impudent devil who strikes like lightning," was Corriere's and La Stampa had also seen something from the dark side in it all. "Olimpico: bewitched by a devil called Ronaldo."
The devilment, for onlookers, was in his genius. "Cold and implacable, he intuits, a second before the others, where the ball is going and harpoons it with the urgency of a man in a hurry to win," said Corriere, in as complete a definition as you will find of Ronaldo's thumping header.
But, in a development which adds spice to next Wednesday's return leg, Roma's players characterised Ronaldo as a man with red horns to go with his red boots. "There is no doubt that he has quality, but it is also true that he has a big head," said David Pizarro, booked as the game neared its end for pushing Ronaldo to the ground as he waved his boot around the ball. "Some of his little tricks in the middle of the pitch were unnecessary and he needs to show some respect to his opposition. You can bet that we will have something to say about it in the return leg." Bruno Conti – former Italian international and now Roma director – added: "It was too much That is not the way to play football. I would never have done that."
Ronaldo was unmoved, of course. "I've not been taking the mickey or playing the fool with anybody," he said. "On the field I respect my adversary. If someone thinks my moves are mockery then they are wrong. If I have a certain attitude it's simply because I've always had it and I will continue to do that. I play for the team and not to show off."
Ronaldo added that he could remember little of his headed goal. He said: "To be honest, I don't remember much about the goal. I went down and I felt pain. I didn't enjoy it. But I will have time to watch it on television – others say it's a good goal."
Ronaldo added: "To win 2-0 away is a great result for us. But it is wrong to think that it's all done. However, we have the return leg at home and we have a chance. If we carry on like this and play well at home, we will get there.
"I think the second goal killed the game off. We had several chances after to score more goals but a 2-0 win is a good result. It's always important not to concede goals and to keep a clean sheet as it is good for confidence."
Ronaldo preferred to dwell on the personal inspiration provided to him by United's 1999 Champions League triumph, which he first watched live at home. "I was 14 years old then, living in Madeira," he said. "Since then, I have watched the match time and time again on TV at home in Manchester. It is something I want to do as well." He does not share Sir Alex Ferguson's reticence about talking up United's chances, either. "Maybe we are the best team at the moment. We are in a very good position right now," he said.
United are expected to reveal today whether the knee injury Nemanja Vidic incurred when he fell awkwardly after a first half challenge will keep him out. The signs are not good. Vidic will have a second scan today on his knee which is very swollen and on which he can't walk.
But the prevailing debate around Old Trafford is where in the pantheon of greats Ronaldo now sits. Tuesday's opposition does not provide the evidence of the player's ability to conquer that a Barcelona semi-final might. But consider events leading up to that header – Ronaldo had been kicked by Phillipe Mexes and lectured by the referee in quick succession – and you sense that his temperament does not limit him as it did at San Siro 12 months ago.
Real Madrid coach Bernd Schuster added to the plaudits yesterday, tipping Ronaldo for the Balon' D'Or and he, just like the Italians, was dreaming of handing him a jersey to pull over his head. "In the short term I don't think it will be possible to sign him," said Schuster. "But in a couple of years, yes, I believe he could be wearing the white shirt at the Bernabeu."
United manager Alex Ferguson said yesterday that there was no danger of his side thinking the job was already done. "I would have taken that scoreline before the game without question," he said. "I thought it was going to be a difficult game and for most of the night it was. Cristiano Ronaldo's goal killed them."