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Sunday, September 19, 2021

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MARTIN SAMUEL: Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United is a gamechanger

Shortly after Cristiano Ronaldo left Manchester United, the club lost the title to Manchester City, on goal difference.

It is fair to say that won’t be happening this season. No team with Ronaldo in it goes down on goal difference. They don’t always win the League — Juventus didn’t last season — but they don’t fall short due to lack of firepower. Ronaldo sees to that.

Where does he fit in at Manchester United? Who knows right now, and who cares? Maybe not even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer just yet. 

Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United is a gamechanger for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

This deal has escalated extraordinarily quickly and solves a problem United probably didn’t even know they had when the week began. If Ronaldo hadn’t been about to sign for their rivals on the other side of Manchester, who can say whether United would have burst into action as they did.

They didn’t try to compete with Paris Saint-Germain for Lionel Messi earlier this month. But someone knew what a bad look it would be for Ronaldo to return to Old Trafford in blue; and someone else sensed the potential in a player who, even in his twilight years in Italian football, still scored 101 goals in 134 games.

So Ronaldo is here and, in many ways, his role at Manchester United has echoes of an old Christmas cracker joke.

‘Q: Where does a 250kg gorilla sit? A: Anywhere it flamin’ wants to.’

Ronaldo, in this metaphor, is the 250kg gorilla. He plays where he feels he will be most effective — because where Ronaldo is happiest, that’s where the goals come from. 

He was a wide player who made himself a centre forward, who took to scoring more headers — he was always good for a few, have a look at an absolute beauty against Roma with Manchester United in the Champions League — and to poaching around the penalty area.

Ronaldo is returning to England eager to prove he can still be the Premier League’s star player

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will ensure that he doesn’t get on the wrong side of Ronaldo

Solskjaer is an old team-mate, they were in the same Manchester United team for four years. He is not so arrogant, or so foolish, to fail to get Ronaldo on his side and operating in his best position. Even at 36, Ronaldo with a point to prove is an asset to any club.

And he will be returning to English football anxious to prove he can still be the Premier League’s alpha male. Zlatan Ibhrahimovic arrived with the same attitude and had a huge impact. Ronaldo is better.

You’ve got to love him for it, really. The confidence, the self-belief, the bravery. Without wishing to take sides, Messi hasn’t really gambled too much, leaving Barcelona for the one true super-club in France.

Paris Saint-Germain compete against some good teams, but they are all sellers, even at their peak. Lille won the title against all expectations last season and have spent the summer cashing in on that success. Monaco did the same.

To deliver the Champions League to Paris is a quest, but Messi is not exactly stretching himself in PSG’s domestic programme. They have probably got this, with or without him.

The challenge for Ronaldo is very different. He is going to a club that last won the League in 2013; taking on the best Liverpool team of the Premier League era; the reigning European champions in Chelsea; the best Manchester City team since Sheikh Mansour transformed the club.

Bruno Fernandes will relish playing with his compatriot and creating chances for him

Ronaldo will be determined to help United achieve success as he managed in his first spell

He is up against Harry Kane, Mohamed Salah and Romelu Lukaku as match-winners; he is attempting to elevate Solskjaer into the company of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel. All this falls on Ronaldo’s shoulders. 

Indeed, that’s how he wants it. He wants it to be about him; he wants to be the difference. Some hate him for it but it is what makes him such a special, unique, player.

We have missed him, in the Premier League. Missed the 438 goals he scored in 450 games for Real Madrid in his absolute prime. Missed the way he defines matches, missed the way his presence elevates what is possible, or achievable. And it should.

What will the players already at Manchester United make of this unexpected addition? The sensible ones will revel in it. Anthony Martial may be pushed further down the pecking order, or sold, but it cannot be argued he hasn’t had his chance. 

Edinson Cavani can surely not resent the arrival of another world-class, super-fit and experienced forward to share the load. Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba now have the perfect finisher to complete their passes.

As for Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford, if they cannot learn from being on the same pitch, in the same gym, on the same training field, even at the same dining table as Ronaldo, maybe football is not for them.

The signing of Ronaldo could push Anthony Martial further down the pecking order at United

Patrice Evra tells a story of being invited to Ronaldo’s for lunch. He was presented with grilled chicken breast and salad — and not much of either – plus water.  

‘Not even juice,’ Evra complained. Meal completed, Ronaldo suggested going into the garden for some two-touch games. At which point, the penny dropped. It was an extra training session, not a social occasion.

No wonder Sir Alex Ferguson was instrumental in persuading Ronaldo to return. He saw first-hand the impact Eric Cantona’s personality and professionalism had on a generation of young United players. Greenwood is 19. Where might he be if he takes in the influence of Ronaldo?

Away from football, United will see this as reasserting the club as the natural destination for marquee talent. 

That has always been Ed Woodward’s philosophy, that United should lead the way in recruiting the biggest names, and this deal is probably his last hurrah before leaving his role as chief executive. If it delivers the title, he will feel very much vindicated. Not least, because he will believe Ronaldo would have had a similar impact at Manchester City.

Legendary ex-United boss Sir Alex Ferguson is fully aware of the impact Ronaldo can have on the other players at the club

This is not the first time United have stolen a march on City in the market, of course, and other victories have not always aged well. 

Roberto Mancini blamed the failure to secure Robin van Persie for the title returning to Old Trafford eight years ago, but since then United’s recruitment drives have often backfired. City were in for Fred in 2018, but were outbid and outspent, and the same happened when Alexis Sanchez left Arsenal.

Some may feel Ronaldo is another bullet dodged; that United have bought a player at the wrong end of his career, with diva qualities and a waning impact.

His last three seasons at Real Madrid were worth 51, 42 and 44 goals, and his three at Juventus 28, 37 and 36.

Ed Woodward will feel vindicated in his approach if Ronaldo helps guide United to the title

Yet City would have paid £120m for Kane, and his last three seasons at Tottenham came in at 24, 24 and 33. This is the toughest league. If Ronaldo delivers anything near his Italian numbers it would still make him the most prolific goalscorer in English football.

He will arrive fit — he’s always fit — and ready to make his debut at home to Newcastle on September 11 after the international break. It is impossible not to be excited by this. It is impossible not to suspect this is a game-changing intervention by Manchester United, too. 

It is a 250kg gorilla of a signing. With Ronaldo around, we’re about to find out who the big beasts really are.

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