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FOOTBALL: Fergie buys into the Real deal; MANCHESTER UNITED BOSS TIPS SPANISH GIANTS FOR CHAMPIONS LEAGUE GLORY AFTER NIGHT OF DRAMA AT OLD TRAFFORD.

Byline: MARK BRADLEY

Manchester United 4 Real Madrid 3 (Real win 6-5 on aggregate)

SIR ALEX FERGUSON tipped Real Madrid to successfully defend their Champions League trophy back at Old Trafford as he faced the more pressing problem of ensuring Manchester United do not end another season empty-handed.

United emerged with their pride intact despite their quarter-final elimination from the Champions League, beating Real 4-3 on the night but losing 6- 5 on aggregate in a mesmerising encounter.

The Spanish side were indebted to the finishing prowess of Ronaldo, who rose to the occasion with a memorable hat-trick to emerge from the shadow of injured team-mate Raul.

However, United clearly demonstrated their enduring European shortcomings, principally over their defence and their vulnerability to the counter- attack amid a naive commitment to all-out pressure.

Ferguson also has another problem to address in attempting to control spiralling speculation over the future of David Beckham, who was controversially left out of the starting line-up last night.

Beckham clearly had a point to prove when he finally came on, scoring twice and then saluting all four corners of the ground before finally leaving the pitch.

Despite United's denials, he will continue to be linked with a possible summer move to Madrid, especially as he is clearly not such an automatic choice for his club as he is for his country.

Whether Beckham is recalled, even though Paul Scholes and Gary Neville may return after European bans, will be a key question as Ferguson now wrestles with his best line-up.

United take on Tottenham at White Hart Lane on Sunday, desperate to avoid finishing without a trophy for a second consecutive season.

Arsenal managed to avoid suffering a hangover after going out of the Champions League last month, defeating Everton just four days after losing away to Valencia.

United must now repeat that feat, with their visit to Tottenham coming 24 hours after Arsenal have the chance to regain the lead of the Premiership when they take on Bolton at the Reebok Stadium.

Ferguson defended his decision to leave Beckham on the bench until the final stages against Real as he preferred Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on the right flank and Juan Sebastian Veron in central midfield.

"I had to face the fact that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had been in fantastic form in that position. The temptation is to make him a substitute as you know that he can come on and change games," he said.

"But he has progressed and his form has been fantastic. Only so many times can you hit a guy over the head like that by leaving him out.

"So I couldn't leave him out, even though David Beckham is a great player too. He came on when Seba started to tire, which was always going to happen."

Ferguson preferred to heap praise on Real, who set up a semi-final meeting with Juventus, while AC Milan will contest the other final spot at Old Trafford with Inter Milan.

"I wish Real Madrid every success. They have a marvellous chance to win the competition. I would certainly find it difficult to choose another side above them," he observed.

"I never thought about the final being at Old Trafford. It doesn't matter where finals are, it just matters whether you get there."

Ruud van Nistelrooy, who had pulled United back into the tie in Madrid, struck again to equalise Ronaldo's early first strike.

However, that 12th-minute opening goal by the Brazilian always left United with a mountain to climb and, when Ronaldo struck again shortly after the break, there was no way back.

Ivan Helguera's own goal revived faint hopes but Ronaldo completed his hat-trick before Beckham came off the bench to convert a free-kick and then force his side's fourth goal over the line.

Ferguson insisted: "I was proud of the effort that the players put in. It was a pleasure to take part in a game of that nature. We had the best referee and the best game in Europe this season.

"Both teams produced football of incredible imagination that people will talk about for a long time to come.

"It doesn't make it any easier for as I felt we could have won and if you score four times, then you expect to win, but you can't legislate for someone like Ronaldo.

"The third goal was a marvellous strike. That's why he's one of the top players in the world."

Real Madrid coach Vicente del Bosque added his tribute to Ronaldo .

Del Bosque had insisted before kick-off that Ronaldo, who has largely lived in the shadow of team-mate Raul since his move from Inter Milan, was coming into prime form just at the right time.

So it proved as the Brazilian, who scored twice in the World Cup final last summer, rose to the biggest occasion once again in the absence of Raul through injury.

Del Bosque declared: "Tonight was his night. He proved that with three goals. We only created three chances for him but he converted all three of them. He was also a good target-man."

"We are the only Spanish side left, defending our title against three Italian teams," said del Bosque.

"Juventus are a team that I respect but we will go out to defend our title in the best way that we can."

CAPTION(S):

HEADING DUEL: Manchester united's Ryan giggs out jumps Real Madrid's Claude Makelele; BRAZIL-IANT: Ronaldo celebrates after completing his hat-trick at Old Trafford last night
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Date:Apr 24, 2003
Words:914
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