The last sight Italian football had of Cristiano Ronaldo in one of its stadiums was of an angry man. He had one foot out of the door of Juventus, eyeing a return to English football. But he packed plenty of drama into his last 40 minutes as Serie A’s superstar.
Juventus were away at Udinese, on the late-August opening day of the current league season. Soon after Udinese had pulled a goal back from 2-0 down, Ronaldo, who had started on the bench because informal talks about his moving were already under way, was brought on. He was fuming when Udinese equalised. Being Ronaldo he reacted with defiance, to pump a header just off target, seeking a late winning goal.
Being Ronaldo, he kept at it, and when, in the fourth minute of stoppage, he leapt to power in a Federico Cheisa cross, all of Italy was reminded that, even in his 20th season as a senior professional CR7 is not ready to be displaced as king of the dramatic comeback. He stripped off his shirt, certain he had won the game. He was livid when VAR, after an agonisingly long deliberation, ruled him offside by the length of an elbow joint.
Five days later he was signing, for a second time in his career, for Manchester United, in whose colours he returns to northern Italy this evening, with another comeback in prospect.
Win in Bergamo against Atalanta and United would go within a point of securing progress out of their Champions League group — a group in which they lost their opening match, to Young Boys of Switzerland, and trailed in their next two, at home to Villarreal and Atalanta. Ronaldo, 36, sealed the turnaround from defeat to victory in both those matches.
The Atalanta manager, Gian Piero Gasperini, shared his thoughts on Ronaldo’s first return to Italy since leaving Juventus and he was generous in his appreciation of the player. “I was actually sorry he moved back to England,” said Gasperini, “because I always like to see the best footballers playing in Italy. He added value to our football. He is simply exceptional, but saying that only repeats what everybody recognises.”
But not everybody has witnessed Ronaldo’s late match-winning knack in quite such concentration as the Atalanta coach.
Rewind to Ronaldo’s first season with Juventus, 2018/19, when ambitious, enterprising Atalanta welcomed the reigning Italian champions to Bergamo in late December with impressive gumption. They led Juve 2-1, with 12 minutes to go. Cue Ronaldo, with a header, and the equaliser.
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The next season, a similar story. Atalanta took their upstart energy to the Juventus stadium, led 1-0 at half-time and led 2-1 in the 90th minute. Guess who earned Juventus a point? Ronaldo converted both equalisers from the penalty spot.
At Old Trafford 13 nights ago, déjà vu for Gasperini and Atalanta, Ronaldo heading in the 81st-minute goal that turned a 2-0 half-time deficit into a 3-2 United victory. “We have to make sure we give him very little,” resolved Gasperini.
The blessing for Atalanta is that Merih Demiral, the central defender who scored against United but was then taken off with a muscle problem ahead of the second half turnaround, is fit to marshall Ronaldo. They are still, though, without injured defender Berat Djimsiti and the wing-backs Rafael Toloi and Robin Gosens.
Atalanta, described by United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as “attacking, aggressive, a team with a unispecial style” will likely stick to Gasperini’s preferred back-three system. Whether United also play with wing-backs and a front pairing, Ronaldo as one of them, remains to be seen.
It was successful against Tottenham Hotspur at the weekend, and the system used for the 3-0 win in London corrected some of the flaws apparent in the home game against Atalanta and repeatedly exploited during the 5-0 Old Trafford defeat to Liverpool that followed.
“We have players to play many different systems — back three, back five, wide men, wingers,” said Solskjaer. “We looked at Tottenham, played that system and it worked. But I can't say what we will do against Atalanta.”
“We have a squad to play in many different ways. You can put any system out but it is about the players executing. The way we played was more important than the system and the attitude at Spurs was spot on. If we get consistency we will get results. This is the chance to prove we can go again.”