MANCHESTER, England ( Associated Press) — The NFL’s greatest rose to applaud the soccer great.
Tom Brady picked the perfect moment to come to Old Trafford to witness a rarity from Cristiano Ronaldo: A Manchester United hat trick.
While the record seven-time Super Bowl winner is enjoying the start of his retirement, Ronaldo is showing there’s still goals left in this 37-year-old veteran.
The header that completed Saturday’s treble against Tottenham required something more from the Michael Jordan playbook with a leap in the air to meet a corner, ensuring United won 3-2 and went fourth in the Premier League.
Ronaldo was able to savor the acclaim of the crowd after being substituted moments after the 81st-minute winner, with Brady among those providing a standing ovation.
And then the GOAT made it down to the field to exchange post-match thoughts with perhaps the Premier League’s “Greatest of All Time.”
While the Portugal forward now has 59 career hat tricks, only one other before Saturday had been in a United jersey — in January 2008 against Newcastle during his first six-season spell at the club.
United was on its way to winning the title 14 years ago. Now it’s just about securing Champions League qualification in Ronaldo’s first season back from Real Madrid.
The title fight is between Manchester City and Liverpool, with Jürgen Klopp’s team again closing the gap on the leaders to three points by beating Brighton 2-0 on Saturday through goals from Luis Diaz and Mohamed Salah.
There’s some way to catch Salah’s league-leading 20 goals this season, with Ronaldo eight behind among the players second on the leaderboard.
But in a season when his contribution has been patchy, this was a timely contribution from Ronaldo. Especially when there had been some disquiet at United over an injured Ronaldo going back to Portugal while his team was losing to Manchester City last Sunday.
“That was the best performance from him since I arrived, on and off the ball,” United interim manager Ralf Rangnick said. “It was really important he showed us that he’s still in a physical shape that he can perform on that kind of level.”
Rangnick could now joke with Ronaldo about the trip.
“Maybe it makes sense to send him to Portugal for three days,” the German said.
The opening goal in the 12th minute was certainly impressive with Fred flicking the ball for Ronaldo, who sent a swerving shot into the top left corner from long-range.
Tottenham did level through Harry Kane’s penalty in the 35th minute after Alex Telles handled Dejan Kulusevski’s cross.
But Ronaldo ensured the lead only lasted three minutes, by getting on the end of Jadon Sancho’s cutback and beating Hugo Lloris.
“I think he was at his best, very aggressive in the box,” the Tottenham goalkeeper said. “It’s difficult to control him.”
United is always prone to implode these days, especially in defence. And Harry Maguire diverting Sergio Reguilón’s cross into his own net looked to have gifted Tottenham a point in the 72nd.
But then came the powerful header from Ronaldo meeting the corner from Telles.
“Ronaldo did what he does best,” United midfielder Paul Pogba said. “You have the best striker in history in our team, it cannot be a problem. Today he showed why he is Cristiano Ronaldo.”
Even Tottenham manager Antonio Conte was impressed despite his side now sitting five points from the fourth Champions League place.
“To arrive at his age with this form, this mentality, this desire to win, you have to have only great compliments,” Conte said.
The day’s other game saw Ivan Toney’s late double give Brentford a 2-0 win over relegation-threated Burnley to move nine points clear of the drop zone.
More Associated Press soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports