'I looked up, and the ball was already inside the net' -- Macheda on 'that goal'

NOVARA, Italy -- As he begins to tell ESPN FC about scoring the winning goal in his Manchester United debut, Federico 'Kiko' Macheda has a confession.

"I was supporting Aston Villa!" he says. "I wanted to get on that pitch so badly, and I knew I'd have a better chance if United were losing. My dream was to play just one game for Manchester United. That's why I left Lazio, the team I'd supported all my life."

Some eight years have passed since the then-17-year-old was named a substitute for a key Premier League game on April 5, 2009. Now playing in Serie B for Novara, a town with a population of 105,000 located between Milan and Turin, Macheda sits in a cafe and recalls his first competitive game in professional football.

European and English champions United had lost their two previous league games and slipped to second in the table behind a Liverpool side that had hammered them 4-1 at Old Trafford three weeks earlier. Sir Alex Ferguson's side had to beat Villa.

"United went 1-0 up; [Cristiano] Ronaldo, a free kick inside the box," Macheda says in a flat, precise tone, speaking of a goal that, he thought, pushed him further from his dream. "And then Villa started to play a bit and scored. I thought: 'Wow, they only need one more goal.' At half-time I stayed on the pitch to kick the ball around. I was happy there. After 13 minutes of the second half, Villa scored again."

Villa's counter-attacks against an under-strength United side were clinical, and the 3,000 travelling fans were delighted -- as was Macheda.

"I was secretly thinking: 'Yes!' I thought I could come on the pitch after 85 minutes and was dreaming about this."

His private thoughts were soon interrupted.

"'Kiko! Kiko!' shouted Fergie. 'Get ready!' I looked around. I thought he was shouting to someone else. Then he started again, only this time he was angrier. 'Kiko! Kiko! Get changed. You're going on.'"

United's No. 41 hurriedly took off his tracksuit.

"There was only 60 minutes gone, and I thought, 'I'm going to play 30 minutes for Man United. Then I calmed myself and said, 'Make it easy, work hard, play as easy as possible.'"

The Rome-born teenager crossed himself as he stepped off the bench and moved pitch-side, ready to replace Nani.

"I said to myself: 'Get on the ball as soon as you can' and went to the halfway line and shouted to Patrice Evra to receive the ball from him. I needed a first touch, and I got that. I knew then that I could play."

Macheda began to find his way into the game and appealed unsuccessfully for a penalty, following a challenge from Curtis Davies.

"My touches were good. I was pressing, defending and confident. Ronaldo scored. 2-2. I went to celebrate with Ronaldo. I wanted to hug him. I didn't have the confidence to smash his chest in celebration because I didn't know him that well, so I went to hug him because I thought it might never happen again. If my career ended in that moment, then I would have been on the pitch next to Ronaldo."

The intended hug turned into a slap.

"Ronaldo said, 'Let's go!' but I couldn't go, I was f---ed! There was 10 minutes left. The tension, the pressure of doing well in front of all these people. I'd been running like a dog when he's happy, and I couldn't breathe any more ... but we needed to win."

Macheda speaks with brutal honesty.

"These guys were not my usual teammates. My teammates were in the reserve team. Those were the guys I travelled with, shared a dressing room with and played with. When I was in the first team that afternoon, my priority was not winning but playing well, and I had played well."

The more experienced players around him saw a bigger picture, though, and drove forward for a winner in the game's closing stages.

"It was after 90 minutes when Patrice got the ball," Macheda says with his eyes lighting up at the memory. "He gave it to [Michael] Carrick, who switched the ball to Gary Neville. I was running forward, and I couldn't breathe. I was fitter than I'd ever been in my career because I'd been flying for the reserves, but I was so tired. Neville went forward and passed to me. I made the first touch and tried to turn around with the back heel, but I lost the ball in the first place, and the ball went back to [Ryan] Giggs. I was in a position where I couldn't do anything. My back was against the goal."

After taking a touch, Giggs passed the ball back to Macheda, who received it just inside the Villa penalty area.

"I was tired, but I tried to back heel again. I turned and shot. I wasn't even looking at the goal. It was instinct. At least I would have had one shot on goal."

Macheda's matter-of-fact description barely does justice to the drama of the moment: In the blink of an eye, he turned beyond Luke Young, then curled the ball into the far corner of the net at the Stretford End, beyond the dive of goalkeeper Brad Friedel.

"I looked up, and the ball was already inside the net," Macheda says with a smile. "The stadium was going crazy. I didn't know what to do. I started to run to my family, but everyone grabbed me. Darren Fletcher started to strangle me on the floor, and I was struggling to breathe. His arm was around my neck. I said to Danny Welbeck, who was hugging me: 'I can't breathe, man. Tell him to move.' Finally, they let go, and I ran to my father, who jumped over the fence and hugged me."

Macheda's ecstatic father was 34, five years younger than United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar.

"[Dad] was crying," Macheda says. "We'd been in it together and moved to Manchester as a family. I finally walked back onto the pitch and walked around, dazed, for the final two minutes."

The goal sealed a 3-2 win and sent United back to the top of the league, where they finished the season to secure an 18th league title, equaling Liverpool's English record.

"I went back into the changing room, and the players were treating me like I was one of them," Macheda says. "I was man of the match. Gary Neville, the captain, presented me with a bottle, but I wasn't 18, so I couldn't drink it! Instead, I went back home and watched the goal 100 times!"

In the second part of our exclusive interview, to be published April 7, Macheda talks about his life before, during and after Manchester United.