Cristiano Ronaldo returns a different player to elevate Manchester United's trophy hopes

Portuguese forward has gone from fleet-footed winger to lethal striker, which is precisely what United need this season

The most important dummies, the trickiest stepovers that Cristiano Ronaldo ever performed were made for the benefit of Manchester United. Half his lifetime ago, with his quick feet and dazzling shimmies, he famously bewitched a visiting United team while in the colours of Lisbon’s Sporting.

The United manager Alex Ferguson was convinced there and then, during a pre-season 2003 friendly that this showy, spindly teenager must urgently join United.

The rest is history, and, once the formalities of his sensational return to United are completed, it is a history with a mighty sting in the tail.

More than 12 years since the grown-up Ronaldo thanked Ferguson for six years of learning and for honouring the agreement that the player would be allowed to fulfill a boyhood dream to join Real Madrid, CR7 will be again a United footballer, with every opportunity to endorse his status as the most influential footballer the club have had in the 21st century.

This week, Ronaldo sold a series of dummies to Juventus and Manchester City on his way back to Old Trafford. City, with whom his advisors entered talks, can legitimately point out that, like a wise defender, they stood back and waited for the trickster to indulge his dribbling without committing themselves, that they stayed calm and upright until the runaround had taken the player a comfortable distance away.

How comfortable? The English champions were not as keen on signing Ronaldo as United were once he announced his intention to leave Juventus. Which does not mean his return to Old Trafford can be regarded from the other side of Manchester or from the rest of the Premier League or Champions League as harmless, romantic nostalgia.

Ronaldo’s arrival clearly elevates United’s prize-winning credentials. He is as close as there is to being a guarantor of goals.

He will not, in his second coming as a United player, be setting off on as many mazy dribbles, or executing as many stepovers as he did under Ferguson. With age, he has made the penalty area, rather than the spaces outside it, his principal territory.

However, if anybody imagines that United have signed a relic, and that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, their manager, will now be puzzling out how to shape a game plan only around a goal-hanging Ronaldo, they should look again at Portugal’s opening strike against Germany at the European Championship in June. They will note that the sprinter who clears the ball in his own penalty area and jets his way, almost instantly, to the other end of the pitch to finish the same move is a man who will turn 37 years old in February.

United have fine-tuned their counter-attacking on Solskjaer’s watch. Ronaldo should ease effectively into those patterns. Any team which has Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes and Jadon Sancho, the young prince of assists, supplying passes to the most effective finisher of modern times must be a leading contender for all available prizes.

But what Solskjaer’s United are not is a trophy-winning machine like the one Ronaldo left to join Madrid in 2009. United had won three successive Premier League titles when Ferguson, honouring his word that Ronaldo would be allowed to leave without obstacles - other than a €100 million fee - if he remained at Old Trafford for the 2008-09 season, waved goodbye to “the most gifted player I [Ferguson] managed”. In the dozen years since Ronaldo left, United have won English football's main prize twice.

Solskjaer’s United are a club of semi-finals or runners-up medals. The Norwegian knows with absolute clarity that a summer in which Ronaldo has joined Sancho and Raphael Varane as additions to an already strong squad is supposed to precede a season with substantial silverware.

The United manager will not look at Ronaldo’s age as a concern. Solskjaer, a superb penalty box predator as a player, was the Portuguese star’s teammate for a period under Ferguson, and saw at first-hand Ronaldo’s rigorous attitude to conditioning his body and preserving his athleticism. Solskjaer will look rather at the fact that, last season, nobody scored more Serie A goals than this superhuman 36-year-old.

He will also know that Ronaldo took a ruthless, cold-eyed view of the value of those goals for Juventus once Juve had lost their nine-year hold on the Serie A title in May.

He resolved to find another club. Ronaldo does not easily tolerate falling standards. He will expect United’s to become as high as they were the last time he was there.

Updated: August 28th 2021, 11:44 AM
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