It was the stuff dreams are made of: a teenage upstart getting his chance on the big stage, and grasping it with both hands, in just about the most dramatic way imaginable.
The name Federico "Kiko" Macheda would have been unfamiliar to any United fan without an MUTV subscription and a penchent for watching the reserves in early 2009. So when the 17-year-old’s name appeared listed among the substitutes for the visit of Aston Villa on 5 April, a few eyebrows were raised, but, in truth, there was little fanfare.
But little did the unsuspecting Old Trafford crowd know, a new prince was about to be crowned — if for only the shortest of times.
Liverpool, who had thumped United 4-1 at Old Trafford three weeks earlier, had just gone top of the Premier League buy two points, having played the day before Sir Alex Ferguson’s men took on Villa, so the need for three points was paramount.
But an hour into the game, the away side led 2-1. John Carew and Gabriel Agbonlahor had taken advantage of the Red Devils’ makeshift defensive pairing of Gary Neville and John O’Shea, cancelling out Cristiano Ronaldo’s early opener.
Having scored a hat-trick for the reserves against Newcastle United earlier in the week, Macheda’s confidence was high, and Ferguson decided to give the teenage Italian 30 minutes to see what he could do. Nani made way for the youngster, with Villa enjoying the better chances on the counter.
Then, with 10 minutes remaining, a customary moment of Ronaldo magic saw the Portuguese grab his second goal of the game from 20 yards: 2-2.
The momentum had shifted as United laid seige to Brad Friedel’s goal in search of a winner.
The home side huffed and puffed, but the score remained tied with 90 minutes played.
Three minutes into injury time, Macheda received the ball on the edge of the penalty area, but immediately he was tackled. The ball ran loose to Ryan Giggs, 30 yards from goal, and the 17-year-old from Rome was on the move, demanding a pass and pointing to the exact blade of grass he wanted it delivered to. Giggs obliged.
In a moment of inspired skill, Macheda’s first touch was a Cruyff turn inside the penalty area to buy himself half a yard of space. Then, with his second touch, he sent a curling shot towards goal which evaded Friedel’s dive and crept in at the far post.
Almost disbelieving of what he had just done, Macheda spinted away in joyous celebration in front of the Stretford End. Racing towards the corner of the ground by the players’ tunnel, the young man saw his father in the crowd, and the two embraced as Old Trafford erupted.
"It was one of those incredible moments," Ferguson said after the game. "It has galvanised the whole club. I told him ‘well done’ but it’s important to keep his feet on the ground.
In the end, a moment that was supposed to ring in the arrival of a new United hero, turned out to be the high point of a career that promised so much, but has thus far delivered very little.
Macheda, now at Cardiff City, only managed four more goals in his next 35 appearances over five years at Old Trafford. The former Italian under-21 international was loaned out several times — including spells with Sampdoria, VfB Stuttgart and Birmingham City - before joining the Bluebirds on a permanent deal in 2014.
But the player still holds fond memories of his United debut, and a goal that proved crucial in securing another Premier League title. "I played for Manchester United and my dream came true," Macheda told the Telegraph.
"But people expected me to become the new Wayne Rooney; the next big thing. That bit was not easy to cope with.
"When I look back. though, I am still happy about it. It was a fairy tale."