For three years Cristiano Ronaldo had kept away from the city where he blossomed into the most expensive – but not the best – player on the planet. There had been no visits to old United team-mates and no promotional shots back in Manchester since leaving for Real Madrid in June 2009. But he was clearly determined that no-one, least of all his former adversaries at Manchester City, would forget his return as he helped deliver the final – if often frustrating – blow to Roberto Mancini's Champions League ambitions.
Unlike the late goal at the Bernabéu that floored City's campaign so early, Ronaldo could not add to his 19 goals so far this season to leave an indelible mark on United's rivals. At times he was reduced to the petulant figure that had twice seen red at this stadium in the heat of a Manchester derby. But for one mesmerising and ultimately crucial period in the first half at The Etihad Stadium he was the figure that divided Real Madrid and Manchester City in terms of class and Champions League pedigree. It was sufficient to leave City on the outside of the European elite for a second season.
It required merely a glance at Mancini's starting formation to see where Ronaldo ranked on the list of concerns confronting the City manager, and only his first three touches of the game to demonstrate what kind of mood the Portugal international had arrived in. The Manchester return opened with a theatrical, albeit over-cooked, chest back to Fabio Coentrao and two accurate back-heeled flicks to Luka Modric. Elaboration was soon accompanied by a destructive streak, provoked by an unpunished foul from Pablo Zabaleta, and the combination should have ended with City out of sight.
Mancini sought to remedy Maicon's turbulent night against Ronaldo at the Bernabeu by adding the insurance of Zabaleta, tucked in behind the Brazilian on the right of a three-pronged central defence. The outcome was just the same. Before 30 minutes were out Zabaleta had been shifted to left-back in a four-man rearguard, the switch not only reflecting the failure of Mancini's original plan but also the embarrassment the usually dependable Argentinian had suffered against Ronaldo. And he was not alone.
Incensed when hauled to the floor by Zabaleta, having released Modric with an exquisite first-touch pass, the £80m man responded to the Italian referee's decision to play on with a petulant outburst that had serious consequences for City. For the next 15 minutes he tormented the Premier League champions at will, a humiliation of Vincent Kompany underlining his audacious authority in particular.
Moments after the wrestle from Zabaleta, Ronaldo collected a pass from the tireless Karim Benzema and displayed great awareness to thread an instinctive ball into Angel Di Maria. Though Di Maria, exploiting the space left by Aleksandar Kolarov at wing-back, had his shot blocked, Real remained in possession. Xabi Alonso gave Di Maria a second chance and an in-swinging cross resulted in Benzema putting the Spanish champions ahead and their English equivalents closer to an early exit.
Neither Maicon, who failed to follow Benzema's run in the box, nor Zabaleta, who appeared surprised by the cross, repaid their manager's faith at the critical moment. Mancini had bemoaned the defensive lapses that have contrasted starkly between Champions and Premier League performances in his programme notes. He could only respond with a resigned smile to the failure to heed the warning. Ronaldo then twisted Zabaleta inside and out before teeing up Sami Khedira for a close-range finish he should have converted. When he repeated the trick on Kompany, twice sending the commanding City captain swiping at thin air before crossing for a Khedira miss once more, an audible gasp went around the Etihad. Rarely, if ever, has the Belgium international appeared so lost on this ground.
The 27-year-old should have enhanced his night's work seconds later when sent clear of City's ponderous offside trap by Xabi Alonso. As Joe Hart advanced, Ronaldo flicked the ball over and goalwards but without the power to beat Matija Nastasic to the line. Steadying himself for the rebound, Real's No7 was denied at close range by Hart and screamed out in frustration. Jose Mourinho did likewise towards the Madrid bench.
The miss, plus Mancini's defensive switch in fairness, took the momentum from Ronaldo's performance until midway through the second half. As City recovered, the Real talisman resorted to fruitless appeals for a penalty plus a foul by Kompany and the home supporters revelled in the strops. But that was all they got.