United advanced to the final May 27 in Rome, where it will play Chelsea or Barcelona. Those teams play the second leg of their semifinal on Wednesday at Stamford Bridge in London; their first match ended in a scoreless tie.
United’s victory Tuesday reflected its mastery, which stemmed from its greater know-how throughout the team. Yet if ever there was a player born to stardom, it is Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro.
His father gave him the second name Ronaldo because he liked Ronald Reagan as an actor. Ronaldo, who was born on the Portuguese island Madeira, has been accused of possessing the thespian. There is also athleticism, great skill and a growing appreciation of team play.
Ronaldo generally plays wing, but United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson sprang a surprise by asking him to play central striker. In Ronaldo’s inventive mind, that gave him a license to roam wherever instinct took him.
In the eighth minute, he raced past Johan Djourou down the left side and passed the ball along the ground to Park Ji-Sung in the Arsenal penalty area. Just as Park received the ball, Arsenal defender Kieran Gibbs lost his footing on grass that was slick after being watered to enable the ball to roll. Park received the pass and scored.
Less than four minutes later, Ronaldo artfully won a free kick, and devastatingly scored from it.
He has now scored on free kicks in three successive European matches. The first, at Porto, was from 40 yards out. The second, against Arsenal last week, was from 33 yards. On Tuesday, he hit one from 41 yards.
United’s players testify to the effort that Ronaldo puts into combining power, precision and trajectory on his free kicks.
Before Ronaldo takes free kicks, he assumes a stance that is theatrical, bordering on arrogant. His arms are spread, his face locked in concentration. Upon the referee’s whistle, he runs 10 paces and hits the ball in such a way that it gathers speed as it dips toward the goal.
Maybe Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia moved toward his left a fraction too late. Maybe he was astonished by the flight of the ball. Anyway, he was beaten.
“The shot was quite difficult to save because the ball moved a little bit,” Ronaldo said. “I just try to do my best to put the ball in the net and it was a good goal.”
So, after barely 10 minutes of play, the euphoric atmosphere inside Emirates Stadium was flattened.
“We do not have the feeling that we played a semifinal in the Champions League because it was over after 10 minutes,” Arsenal Manager Arsène Wenger said. “The most disappointing thing is that the game was over before it even started.”
The coup de grâce came in the 61st minute. Manchester’s third goal was a classic breakaway, a sweeping move the length of the field. Nemanja Vidic headed the ball clear of his penalty area, Ronaldo flicked the ball onward with a backheel, then Park passed it through the central area, and Wayne Rooney accelerated down the left.
When Rooney was ready, who should be sprinting into the Arsenal area? Ronaldo, of course. The finish, with Ronaldo’s instep, was his 25th goal of this season in all competitions, his 67th in two seasons.
The only negative for United came in the 75th minute when defender Darren Fletcher was issued a red card for a tackle from behind on Cesc Fàbregas in the penalty area. Robin van Persie converted the penalty kick, and Fletcher will miss the final.