Cristiano Ronaldo mustered one triumphant comeback for Manchester United on Saturday. Now he may eye another. His last Champions League game for them was also his valedictory outing. It felt the day the balance of power in Europe shifted away from United and, thus far, it has not turned back.
Strange as it sounds now, as Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona have a reputation as arguably the best club side in footballing history and a team who elevated the game to another level, but United entered the 2009 final as favourites for many.
They were the defending champions, boasting three consecutive Premier League titles and the reigning Ballon d’Or winner, in Ronaldo. Guardiola was three years old when Ferguson started managing, but Barcelona overwhelmed United.
Wayne Rooney has subsequently criticised Ferguson’s attacking tactics. “We might have got closer by playing defensively,” the Scot subsequently admitted. Michael Carrick recalled in his autobiography that: “The boss was understandably angry and had a go at everyone.”
It was a turning point. Ronaldo decamped to Real Madrid and United entered decline. Rooney recalled that United thought they had a chance against Barcelona in the 2009 final and none in the 2011 rematch. A gulf in class opened up without Ronaldo. United have gone a decade without a Champions League semi-final.
Ronaldo has won conquered Europe four times since then, more than United have in their history. Over nine seasons at Real Madrid, he scored more goals in the competition than his former club. When Juventus signed the Portuguese in 2018, it seemed a cheat code to win it. It did not succeed: indeed Juventus regressed with Ronaldo and his 14 Champions League goals in three seasons was one fewer than he managed in his final year with Real alone.
And now? Rewind three weeks and few were tipping United to reclaim the Champions League. After all, their elimination in the group stages last season felt embarrassing, when they undid the fine work of beating Paris Saint-Germain in France to fail to take the solitary point they needed from their final two games. It was compounded by their passive performance against Villarreal in the Europa League final.
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United’s motivations are different to Juve’s. The celebration of Ronaldo that Saturday’s homecoming provided illustrated as much. But Ronaldo’s transformation from showpony to the most prolific scorer in footballing history was forged by demanding much of himself and others. “We need to build up the mentality to win the Premier League and even the Champions League,” he said on Saturday.
Perhaps mentality is an explanation of United’s pratfall-prone nature in Europe. Tuesday's game against Young Boys of Berne may revive memories of last autumn’s defeat to Istanbul Basaksehir. United have lost group games to Basel and PSV Eindhoven and Cluj and Galatasaray in between Ronaldo’s two spells at the club. His record total of goals in the competition is in part a product of his ability to prey on the relatively weak, but that could be a handy habit for United.
So, too, his capacity to score against all comers. Ronaldo played in all four goalless draws against Villarreal in his first stint at Old Trafford and the Europa League final was a sign they still struggle to break down the Yellow Submarines.
But Ronaldo scored 13 goals in 15 La Liga games against them. A return of three goals in five Serie A matches against Atalanta may be underwhelming by Ronaldo’s standards but while Villarreal are the top seeds in the pool and United second, Atlanta, the 2019-20 quarter-finalists, have more recent pedigree in the Champions League. That potential three-way battle makes victory in Berne imperative for United. Ronaldo will probably expect himself to deliver it.