It had been a long three months for Cristiano Ronaldo’s adoring public, starved of seeing their hero in action.
They have been told that Ronaldo is not suited to how Manchester United want to play, while the man himself is desperate to leave. But on his first appearance since United’s chastening 4-0 defeat at Brighton in early May, there was nothing but love for the veteran superstar as his side finished their pre-season off with a 1-1 draw against Rayo Vallecano at Old Trafford.
It is anyone’s guess whether he will even don the red shirt again, as the transfer saga of the summer looks set to rumble on. The 37-year-old’s 45-minute cameo was full of enthusiasm and drive to persuade his enamoured fanbase that staying in Manchester is still on the table nonetheless.
But what will have pleased new coach Erik ten Hag most, given how frustrated he was with his side’s performance in their 1-0 defeat to Atletico Madrid on Saturday in Oslo, was how two new arrivals got their feet under the table right from the off on their United bow.
Ten Hag shoehorned this extra friendly in, less than 24 hours after their previous one, specifically to get a look a three players, in Ronaldo, Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martinez.
Ronaldo, who Ten Hag said after the Atletico loss was a “long way off” the rest of the squad in terms of fitness given he missed the club’s pre-season tour for “family reasons”, looked especially up for it.
He had fans off their seats at Old Trafford after only 12 minutes having dragged the ball on to his left foot before firing just over.
The incongruous sight of Ronaldo tracking back and dropping deep to connect with the build-up play – a key requirement in Ten Hag-ball, hardly embodied a man who did not have impressing his new boss at the forefront of his mind.
Eriksen and Martinez’s exploits especially, however, will give Ten Hag reason to be optimistic ahead of next week’s curtain-raiser against Brighton.
Eriksen, while operating in a role similar to the one Bruno Fernandes has made his own since arriving in Manchester, brings a calm to a side riddled with chaos in recent times.
When on the ball, the Danish midfielder takes that little bit longer to assess the situation – pausa as Pep Guardiola would call it – allowing more gaps to open up. Had several near-pinpoint through passes avoided the toe of the last defender, he could have had several assists to mark his afternoon’s work against Rayo.
Another area where calm is needed to be the panacea is in defence, with Martinez, in his hour’s exploits, showing he can be the class act needed at the heart of a backline that conceded 31 more league goals than champions Manchester City last term.
As one of the smaller centre-backs in the league, he does not look like your traditional, burly warrior in his position, but that is exactly the point of bringing him in.
One of the main tasks Ten Hag set the club this season was to bring in a ball-playing central defender, with Martinez his first, and only choice.
United don’t have the luxury of possessing a goalkeeper of Alisson or Ederson’s ilk, one capable of passes that sail over the first line of defence – a modern-day requirement for top level goalkeepers.
Martinez gave an indication on Sunday that he will be the man David de Gea will look to from his goal-kicks, given his array of passing ability, to start attacks.
There were several crucial defensive interventions too, including a timely one to deny former United forward Radamel Falcao from scoring in the first half, to emphasise the regular defensive requirements can still be met.
Ahmad Diallo scored United's goal, and Alvaro Garcia replied, and it's clear more new signings are needed, specifically a defensive central midfielder and more options up front.
But the early signs from those who have already been brought in is that they won’t take much time at all to get up to speed – music to fans’ ears, given their desperation to at least see some sign of progress.