Cristiano Ronaldo aims to steal the show again ahead of big Manchester United return

Veteran attacker poised for second Red Devils debut, against Newcastle on Saturday, looking for latest grand entrance in career full of them

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The first distinguished figure Cristiano Ronaldo stole the show from as a senior professional was Jose Alvalade. Alvalade, the grandson of a viscount, was a major figure in the formation of Lisbon’s Sporting Clube, and a former Sporting president who gives his name to their current stadium. On an August evening 18 years ago, Manchester United were invited there to inaugurate the arena.

By the end of their 3-1 defeat to Sporting, the late Senhor Alvalade, the stadium and assorted stars such as Ruud van Nistelrooy, Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand had all been upstaged by a teenager determined to write all the headlines. Ronaldo had prepared for the occasion by dying blond highlights into his hair.

His feet did the rest. His marker, John O’Shea, finished up with a “migraine”, according to the then United manager Alex Ferguson, who immediately resolved to push through a bid to sign the 18-year-old Ronaldo that United had already been contemplating.

Through half a lifetime since then, Ronaldo has been stealing the show everywhere he has been. His debuts - the latest should take place on Saturday, when he is expected to make the first appearance, at home to Newcastle, for United since rejoining them last month - tend to be grand entrances. He scored in his first home Champions League match for Juventus, after joining the then Italian champions for around €100 million in 2018. That was against United. He had already set up a goal on his home Serie A debut.

At Real Madrid, who Ronaldo joined for more than €100m from United in 2009, he scored on his debut, a penalty in a 3-2 win over Deportivo La Coruna. His Champions League debut for Madrid? Two goals away at FC Zurich.

Another double followed shortly after he had stood to attention for the Champions League anthem for the first time in a Madrid shirt at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, Olympique Marseille the victims of his insatiable appetite for goals.

There would be 450 goals spread across his nine seasons at Madrid. They came at a rate of better than one per match, so it is not at all fanciful to imagine that Ronaldo’s first outing for United since his return will feature his name on the scoresheet.

Last season, his 29 Serie A goals came at an average of one every 97 minutes. And that was down on his hit-rate for 2019-20, when he scored 31 Italian top-flight goals at a goal every 94 minutes.

As a form guide, that is stunning. So is his activity already this month. Last week, Ronaldo set yet another record, for the highest number of goals of any man in international football, with his brace for Portugal against Ireland, taking him to 111 for his country, surpassing Ali Daei’s 109 for Iran. There will almost certainly be more goals for Portugal. CR7 intends to continue as captain of his country until at least the 2022 World Cup, when he will be 37.

Cristiano Ronaldo scores one of the two headers for Portugal against Ireland that saw him break the international goals record. EPA

He might have had a hat-trick against Ireland, but had a penalty saved early in a match where Portugal then fell behind, trailing until the 89th minute. The comeback was all down to the serial show-stealer, two headers from Ronaldo, the second, in stoppage time, ensuring Portugal top their qualifying group with three games to go.

But that failure from the penalty spot set off a small murmur. United’s Bruno Fernandes was on the pitch at the time. He bows to Ronaldo in the national hierarchy for spot-kick responsibilities, and given that Ronaldo converted three penalties during Euro 2020, that hierarchy is well set. But it remains to be seen who steps up when United are awarded their next penalty and both Portuguese are on the pitch. Bruno has a 93 per cent success rate from the spot.

Ronaldo will certainly claim a high place in United’s hierarchy for direct free-kicks, a specialism, although it’s a less effective one that it was earlier in his career.

Show-stealer he may be, by instinct, but he values winning more than personal glory. His former United teammate Owen Hargreaves tells the story of a conversation before the 2008 Champions League final after Ronaldo had observed Hargreaves was in a fruitful groove with his direct free-kicks. “You should take the first one,” Ronaldo, the first choice for set pieces within range of goal, told Hargeaves.

That night Ronaldo scored the opening goal, with a header, and in the penalty shoot-out to settle a close contest against Chelsea, his effort was saved. United still won, Ronaldo still picked up the first of his five Ballon d’Or trophies that season. His intention is to steal the show often enough while back at Old Trafford that he collects his sixth.

Updated: September 10, 2021, 3:57 AM