| Real Madridís Zinedine Zidane (centre) skips through aborted challenges from Manchester Unitedís Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (left) and Nicky Butt during their Champions League match at Old Trafford Wednesday. (AFP)
On an evening of enchanting football at Old Trafford, David Beckham reminded Sir Alex Ferguson, Real Madrid and the watching world of his exceptional qualities, making a complete mockery of Fergusonís horrendous mistake in leaving him on the bench until midway through the second half when he charged on and struck twice.
For all Beckhamís efforts and the tireless contribution of Ruud Van Nistelrooy, the damage had already been done, inflicted by Ronaldoís hattrick as Real deservedly progressed to a Champions League semi-final against Juventus. At the final whistle, Beckham swapped shirts with Zinedine Zidane, who had again so damaged Unitedís equilibrium. Beckham may be acquiring a Real top of his own soon.
If Manchester belonged to Real, Beckham may soon belong to Real. If he moves, the England captain will certainly enjoy playing with such talents as Zidane, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Iker Casillas and Claude Makelele and the European championsí thrusting young generation, Javier Portillo and Francisco Pavon.
So United won on the night, Real on aggregate but football overall. A fitting feast for the watching Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas and Sir Bobby Charlton this was a joyous roller-coaster ride of a tie, utterly compelling to watch as attacks flowed from end to end.
Yet in between keeping check on the breathless football on view, the eye kept being drawn back to the extraordinary sight of Beckham sitting on the bench. Juan Sebastian Veron was clearly not fit enough. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hardly justified Fergusonís decision to dispense with Beckhamís dead-ball expertise and work ethic.
Ferguson has never shied away from controversial selections but this Beckham gamble was ridiculous, arguably the United managerís most damaging decision since he left his goal exposed by omitting Peter Schmeichel at Barcelona in 1994.
Romario brutalised Unitedís back-line that night, scoring twice against the overwhelmed Gary Walsh. Another Brazilian, Ronaldo, punished United Wednesday, the European Footballer of the Year striking a hattrick to shred Unitedís Champions League dreams.
When he left the field midway through the second half, his wrecking job accomplished, Realís smiling assassin received a moving, lengthy ovation from everyone within Old Trafford. Even the Real Madrid directors shook their head in astonishment at the marvellous tribute of the United fans.
Fergusonís worse fears about Real scoring were realised after only 11 minutes. When Juan Sebastian Veron, Beckhamís folly of a replacement and looking like a player who had not kicked a ball for seven weeks, lost possession lazily in Realís box, Zidane made a mockery of Fergusonís daft suggestion that he ďnever hurtĒ opponents.
Zidane was the catalyst, the link in this fine, unfolding Real move, carefully exchanging passes with Roberto Carlos, Steve McManaman and Luis Figo before flicking a foot at the accelerator. The excellent Guti, effectively deployed in central midfield, took up the running and angled a fantastic pass to Ronaldo, whose burst of pace down the inside-right channel took him clear of the slow-responding Rio Ferdinand. Ronaldoís shot, blending power and placement to irresistible effect, raced past Fabien Barthez.
Embarrassment engulfed Ferdinand and Barthez. The sight of Barthez being beaten at the near-post may quicken Fergusonís desire to sign a replacement in the summer. No wonder the United manager is contemplating a cross-Pennine raid for Paul Robinson, Leeds Unitedís England keeper.
Yet there is character in these United ranks. Ryan Giggs sent a shot skimming wide. At last, United were showing signs of life and Iker Casillas needed to react swiftly to push away a drive from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The pressure brought precious, albeit brief, relief. Giggs slid the ball through for Solskjaer, whose low cross was met by Van Nistelrooy, comfortably Unitedís best player.
Back came Real in this thoroughly absorbing tie, the stylish Spaniards regaining the lead after the interval. With Unitedís defence left in tatters by Figoís chip which clipped the bar, Real went for the jugular again.
Zidane, inevitably, ushered Roberto Carlos down the inside-left channel and the Brazilianís cross presented Ronaldo with the simplest of tap-ins.
Again, commendably, United refused to bow out meekly. Although the subdued Roy Keane was chasing shadows, showing how injuries have taken their toll, his teammates were beginning to impose themselves. They even drew level when Veron crossed weakly and Ivan Helguera turned the ball past Casillas. Briefly, United sensed hope but Casillas saved well from Solskjaer.
Having resisted this particularly flurry of a storm, Real simply raced through the gears again, Ronaldo sealing his hattrick with an exceptional strike from 25 yards. Again Ferdinand failed to deal with the danger. Rio 0, Brazil 3.
Ferguson had to admit his mistake. He removed the ineffectual Veron, sent on Beckham and the England captain, a man determined to impress Real, promptly threatened with a menacing cross that Solskjaer headed wide.
Beckham has a tendency to write his own script and he will have taken great delight in scoring, swerving a trademark free-kick past Casillas. Parity regained but, overall, paradise lost.
Beckham, sensationally, still had not finished. A lightning break from Solskjaer and Giggs send Van Nistelrooy scampering through on goal, the ball rolling across to the far-post where Beckham applied the finishing touch: 4-3 to United but they still needed two. Beckham came raiding again but Real held firm, losing on the night but winners overall and winning countless new friends for their free-flowing, imaginative football with Ronaldo and Zidane reigning supreme. No wonder Beckham fancies a spell in the Bernabeu pleasure-dome.
Manchester United (4-3-2-1): Barthez; Brown, Ferdinand, Silvestre (P. Neville 78), OíShea; Butt, Keane (Fortune 82), Veron (Beckham 62); Solskjaer, Giggs; Van Nistelrooy. Subs: Ricardo (g), Blanc, Forlan, Fletcher.
Real Madrid (4-4-1-1): Casillas; Salgado, Hierro, Helguera, Roberto Carlos; Figo (Pavon 88), Makelele, Guti, McManaman (Portillo 69); Zidane; Ronaldo (Solari 68).
Referee: P. Collina (Italy).