It could be his next poster campaign, photographed before a green backdrop and plastered life-size across the walls of the Santiago Bernabéu metro station. There was something cartoonish, machine-like, about it. Almost too perfect, a computer game. The leap, high; the back, straight. The timing, pause included, impeccable. Real Madrid had started well and so had he, but they were trailing 1-0. It wasn't looking good.

And then Cristiano Ronaldo did what he does. What he always seems to do.

This tie remains alive and United will have taken confidence from their performance at the Bernabéu. Not just because of Robin van Persie's second-half efforts but also because they took the lead.

Nor was Ronaldo Madrid's only impressive performer, but his most decisive intervention, after half an hour, was this game's stand-out moment. He had departed his position on the left and drifted towards the middle, the first steps of a performance when he often appeared to be everywhere, where his movement away from the ball was almost as important as what he did with it. Angel Di María's cross was perfect, swinging outwards. Ronaldo went up and didn't come down, at least not yet. He met the cross and headed past David de Gea. The Bernabéu erupted and the mood shifted.

This was Ronaldo's first Champions League headed goal at Madrid, but it was reminiscent of the one with which he won his first trophy here, in the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona; that night there was something almost beautiful in the brutality of the way he connected. He had done it again and in his first re-encounter with his former team-mates.

A myth was definitively debunked. He doesn't do it in the big games? Ronaldo has scored in five or his last six clásicos, including the goal that effectively won Madrid the league title last season. He came into this game as the Champions League's joint top scorer with six goals. Seven, now. If there was a chance that he would be too emotional against his former club, there was no evidence. Quite the opposite. This was not just an impressive performance, it was a clever one, in which he moved astutely, dropping deeper and switching sides, composed. Always involved.

Perhaps that should not have come as a surprise. If it took a while for Ronaldo to win this stadium over, there is no doubt now. It is not just that he has changed – his game is more varied, his decision-making more assured – but that they have too. Where once there was critical talk of an individual trying to win it alone, now that is repackaged as responsibility, a special player leading his team.

José Mourinho called him the best he has worked with. Sir Alex Ferguson insisted that he is a better player than the one that left Manchester United for £80m, more mature, peaking. He also admitted that he never expected Ronaldo to score as many goals as he has – from 118 goals in 292 games for United, at 0.40 goals per game, to 1.01 goals per game at Real – 182 in total.

183 now. Both Madrid-based sports newspapers put him on the cover. Marca declared: "It's your night"; AS described it as "Ronaldo's day".

Madrid's hope was United's concern. Talk was of how United would stop him. Few sides counter-attack like Madrid. Those that have succeeded tend to cede possession and sit deep, denying the space that makes them so devastating. Jürgen Klopp talked of preventing Xabi Alonso from finding him from deep; Pepe Mel, the Real Betis coach, was blunt: "give them the ball."

Ferguson might have been expected to do likewise. The starting XI, a surprise, appeared to suggest another approach: Phil Jones, successful in tracking Gareth Bale and Marouane Fellaini, was included but not as an additional midfielder on Ronaldo watch. Instead, Rooney was deployed on the right, close to his former team-mate.

Yet Rafael da Silva was often left exposed and the inclusion of Rooney with Danny Welbeck, Shinji Kagawa and Van Persie spoke of an offensive approach. In truth, it seemed to speak of suicide. The absence of Nemanja Vidic did not help. Until Welbeck's goal, United's approach did not seem offensive, but that may have been more of a case of United doing what they could rather than what they wanted. It was an intense, explosive start from Madrid. Ronaldo's first shot scuffed harmlessly wide in the eighth minute. By then he had already run at Rafael once, pulling the ball back across the box. Half cleared, Coentrao's shot came back off the post. A few minutes later that Rafael tried to shield the ball out of play, misjudged badly and allowed Ronaldo to get away from him again. Karim Benzema's shot was blocked.

The game was barely 10 minutes old; the full back seemed to be in for a long night. He may have anticipated that already; what he probably did not was that it would not only be Ronaldo who would cause him problems but virtually every Madrid player who ventured into his zone, taking advantage of the space Ronaldo had left. That included Mesut Ozil, Fábio Coentrão and, decisively, Di María. If there was relief in Ronaldo drifting into the centre and then out to the right, it did not last.

The goal began with Da Silva being turned by Ozil. Rooney came to his aid and slid in to concede a throw-in. From the throw, a simple goal, brilliantly executed. Ronaldo had already thumped a free-kick into the wall, sending his follow-up screeching just wide and later smashed one not far over. This time he leapt to head in.

Although the Portuguese drifted out of the game late on and would be grateful for Van Persie's two misses, there was more to come, De Gea making exceptional saves and Ronaldo sliding in towards Gonzalo Higuaín's low delivery. With five minutes to go, a free-kick a ludicrously long way out flew on to the top of the net and he could not quite get a shot off inside the six-yard box in the final seconds.

That would have been some picture, too much even for Ronaldo. He had already provided the perfect poster.