Cristiano Ronaldo may have conquered English football last season with his devastating ability with the ball, but last night he showed a trait more common to Sir Alex Ferguson's native Glasgow. A head-butt directed at Richard Hughes meant a red card for the Player of the Year as Manchester United's new season went into a tailspin.
By the time Ronaldo stalked off on 85 minutes protesting his innocence, Ferguson's side had squandered their lead through Paul Scholes' goal and were on their way to collecting a measly two points from the first two games of the new season. They will be without the suspended Ronaldo and the injured Wayne Rooney for Sunday's visit to Manchester City and they go there in the unusual position of trailing their local rivals in the Premier League table.
Sulley Muntari had been sent off seconds earlier for his second yellow card for a foul on Michael Carrick that Harry Redknapp accepted was a mistake by his striker. Ferguson was not ready to be quite so accepting of Ronaldo's fate. The United manager launched an impassioned defence of his winger who, he claimed, had only committed the crime of rising to provocation. The third dismissal of Ronaldo's United career – Aston Villa in May 2004 and Manchester City in January last year were the others – was, according to Ferguson, the result of a vindictive referee. "Steve Bennett sent him off at City and he will have loved this opportunity to send him off," Ferguson said.
That comment may well catch the eye of the Football Association compliance unit but Ferguson was not finished. "I have tried to look at the replay and there is nothing conclusive either way," he said. "My take on it was he was provoked and has fallen for it. Cristiano was responsible for falling for the intimidation and he only has himself to blame.
"He left us with 10 men and will be missing him for the next three games. It's a big blow. We played some fantastic football and we were wasteful with our chances. I don't know if Cristiano lifted his hands, but if you do there is no other course [but for the referee to send him off]."
With "a bit of calmness" was how Ferguson urged his young charge to approach intimidation in future, complete with the somewhat patronising advice "he has to remind himself that he is better than these players". It is a theory that Redknapp may wish to contest – in his two spells in charge of Portsmouth he has won three, drawn one and lost just one game against United.
Ferguson will be without Ronaldo for the games against Tottenham and Sunderland as well as City, when Eriksson can at least thank the gods for evening the score. It was Ronaldo's part in a famous sending-off in the summer of last year that brought the curtain down on Eriksson's chaotic England career. At least he will not have to concern himself with the Portuguese winger on Sunday.
For Carlos Tevez, making his United debut, it must have been an unwelcome flashback to all the problems at West Ham last season. The Argentine will have thought that he had left behind the controversy when he finally made his escape from Upton Park but, after Benjani Mwaruwari headed the equaliser on 53 minutes, it seemed to engulf United again.
There was another tactical masterclass from Redknapp, who outmanoeuvred Ferguson at half-time with two crucial substitutions. Without the injured Sol Campbell, Lauren, Linvoy Primus and Dejan Stefanovic, he finished the game with a back four composed entirely of left-footed defenders. Bringing on Matt Taylor to give his midfield some composure on the left led directly to Portsmouth's equaliser.
At times United threatened to tear Portsmouth's defence apart but even with Tevez at the point of their attack, they did not have the natural finisher to put the game out of sight. With Ryan Giggs playing just behind Tevez, and Nani and Ronaldo occasionally brilliant on the wings, it is a team of attacking talent just lacking the goalscorer to complete the ensemble.
Amid the excitement of Portsmouth's second-half comeback, only David Nugent will wish to forget the evening. The England striker looked jittery on his home debut, most noticeably when he fell over his own feet when played through on goal. On 53 minutes Portsmouth scored an equaliser when Taylor's cross from the left was met powerfully by Mwaruwari, who put his header beyond Edwin van der Sar's reach
When it came to finishing off Portsmouth, United were blocked on more than one occasion by the exemplary David James. The veteran goalkeeper was on brilliant form, tipping a shot over from Ryan Giggs, blocking another from Ronaldo and scooping the rebound away from Tevez. It took a special goal to beat him and it came from Scholes, crisply struck on 15 minutes after Tevez had shielded the ball before stroking it into his team-mate's path.
"Carlos was absolutely terrific," Ferguson said, "but he didn't get any protection and I don't know how many times he was fouled." His pre-season serenity has all but departed. Come Sunday it could get even worse.
Goal: Scholes (15) 0-1; Mwaruwari (53).
Portsmouth (4-4-1): James; Cranie (Traoré, h-t), Pamarot (Hughes, 64), Distin, Hreidarsson; Mwaruwari, Mendes (Taylor, h-t), Muntari, Utaka; Davis; Nugent. Substitutes not used: Ashdown (gk), Kanu.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Brown (Eagles, 88), Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo, Carrick, Scholes, Nani; Giggs (O'Shea, 81), Tevez. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Pique, Fletcher.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).
Booked: Portsmouth Muntari, Davis; Manchester United Vidic.
Sent off: Portsmouth Muntari (83); Manchester United Ronaldo (85).
Man of the match: James.