Premier League – Ronaldo saves subpar United
Manchester United struggled to a 1-0 win at Derby with a goal from Cristiano Ronaldo, a result that saw them take top spot in the Premier League.
One of the supposed mismatches of the season ended up as a nailbiting affair as the Premier League’s bottom club kept the champions out until 15 minutes from time.
Ronaldo finally beat former United keeper Roy Carroll from close range after a precise left-foot cross from Wayne Rooney.
Although they ended up on the losing side, this may go down as the Rams’ best performance of the season – a world away from their abject 6-1 surrender to Chelsea on Wednesday.
United had a week to get over their FA Cup defeat at the hands of Portsmouth and, although his side take on Bolton in midweek, Sir Alex Ferguson elected to start with both Ronaldo and Rooney.
Ben Foster made his first start for United in the absence of Edwin van der Sar and Tomasz Kuszczak and impressed in all but his kicking, which was consistently dreadful.
Although there was no Carlos Tevez or, intriguingly, Rio Ferdinand, the visitors looked certain to ease to a comfortable victory.
They enjoyed nearly unbroken possession as first Ronaldo then Ryan Giggs went close from 15 yards before the Portuguese struck the post.
O’Shea pulled a low pass back for Ronaldo, whose daisy-cutter looked destined for the corner before curling improbably onto the woodwork.
United lost their early impetus but still looked dangerous – such as when Wayne Rooney robbed Marc Edworthy and teed up Ronaldo, whose shot was clawed away by Carroll.
After a while, something strange happened. Derby started winning 50-50 balls and put together some decent moves.
In the 38th minute Eddie Lewis crossed from the left and Kenny Miller arrived with a powerful volley that Foster did well to push away, diving to his left.
A minute later the Scotsman came even closer, leaving Nemanja Vidic in a heap and racing clean through, but Foster again repelled his shot smartly.
United eventually restored their dominance of the game through the ubiquitous Ronaldo, who first caused Carroll to fumble with a long-range free-kick on 55 minutes then hit the unwitting Ulsterman with a downward header from the resultant corner.
Ronaldo went close with yet another free-kick before Foster was called into action again; the youngster reacted quickly when a Mile Sterjovski shot looped up off substitute Michael Carrick and nearly dropped into the corner.
As time ticked down, only Ronaldo looked likely to break the deadlock, and so it proved. Two minutes after shooting into the side netting he finally prevailed.
The 23-year-old was the only man in the box when Rooney broke away down the left, and showed great agility to redirect the cross into the corner.
Ronaldo has taken to celebrating his goals with a calm, arrogant shrug. Not this time – he gesticulated wildly, veins popping from his neck. That above all said everything about how hard Derby made United work.
As well as two more Ronaldo shots on target, the remainder of the game provided a pair of curiosities.
First referee Phil Dowd was forced off by injury – replaced by fourth official Trevor Kettle – then Carroll marauded forward to fire off a shot deep in injury time, but it was blocked.