Cristiano Ronaldo’s 50th hat-trick of a remarkable career came in Sunday’s 6-3 win against a high-flying Girona who had already beaten Real Madrid earlier in the season.
Ronaldo had scored only four league goals at the halfway point of this season: he has scored 18 in the 10 league games since, surpassing Luis Suarez's 21 and only three shy of Lionel Messi's 25 in the race for the Pichichi, Spain's top scorer award.
Of Ronaldo's half-century of hat-tricks, 44 have been scored for Madrid with five more for his country, Portugal. But to have witnessed his first hat-trick in football live, you had to be in Manchester 10 years ago. An ecstatic, youthful Ronaldo put three past managerless Newcastle United at Old Trafford.
Ronaldo was playing for Manchester United, the champions of England who were about to become European and world champions. His role in the United side had increased season upon season, his goal tally too. Ronaldo scored six goals in his first season in Manchester, nine in his second, 12 in his third and 23 in his fourth. By the time he netted his first treble, he was on his way to becoming the best player in the world, with United fans hollering "Viva Ronaldo" as they followed him and the team across Europe in appreciation. "Running down the wing," they would sing in Rome, Manchester or Barcelona, "Hear United sing, Viva Ronaldo."
2008 would be an epic year for Ronaldo. As well as winning four trophies with United, he also lifted the Ballon d’Or, the Fifa World Player of the Year, Uefa Club Footballer of the Year, the European Golden Shoe, the Champions League best forward and top scorer accolades, the Premier League Golden Boot, the PFA Player of the Year, the FWA Player of the Year, the Manchester United Fans’ Player of the Year, the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year, plus the United Players' Player of the Year award.
United – and perhaps England – have not seen a player like him since, yet he hadn’t scored a hat-trick in professional football until the start of 2008 and that game against Newcastle, which started with his changing his bright orange boots after 18 minutes. They didn’t have an immediate effect - the score was 0-0 at half time.
“I thought there were too many individuals in the first half. We tried to walk the ball into the net,” said United's manager Alex Ferguson.
Three minutes into the second half, Ronaldo was clipped by his former teammate Alan Smith outside the United area. The Portuguese placed the ball and hit a free kick under the jumping wall and past goalkeeper Shay Given. “He’s always practising,” Ferguson said.
It wasn’t just Ronaldo who was brilliant that day. United fans watching the current side haven’t seen a front three as good as the triumvirate of Wayne Rooney, Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez of that season. Tevez made it 2-0 to United on 55 minutes, Ronaldo with the assist.
Ronaldo scored his second to make it 3-0 on 70 minutes with the best goal of the six United scored that day. A killer pass from Michael Carrick found Rooney, who laid it off to Tevez, who passed to Ronaldo’s feet. He stopped the ball, then side footed it past the Republic of Ireland goalkeeper. The travelling Newcastle fans sang: "We’re gonna win 4-3."
A Rio Ferdinand volley after 85 minutes made it 4-0, before Ronaldo brought up his hat-trick on 87 minutes. He collected a poor clearance from Jose Enrique, turned to avoid a challenge from Claudio Cacapa and shot towards goal, the ball deflecting past Given. It was his 22nd goal of the season, the same as Alan Shearer, who Newcastle fans were demanding should take over as manager.
Tevez bagged United’s sixth in the 90th minute as United went back to the top of the table.
Asked if he thought Ronaldo would be crowned footballer of the year, his manager smiled and said: “All bets are off.” Ronaldo said when asked why he hadn’t scored three before: "If I score two goals every game, I am very happy."
Ferguson’s challenge that summer was keeping Ronaldo. He managed to for another year, but he could only delay Ronaldo’s inevitable move to Real Madrid.