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Friday, September 17, 2021

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United, they dream again with Cristiano Ronaldo

Remember the goal he scored against Germany in Euro 2020? The one that had him sprinting down the middle, taking away a defender and then being at hand to execute a simple tap-in? If there is a text book definition of a goal on a counter-attack this would be it. Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United on Friday night felt like the goal he scored that June night — so swift and sudden that it needed a tap-in and not a spectacular finish.

Here was the world — okay, those who think Old Trafford is the centre of the universe — talking about the great betrayal even though it had been 12 years since he had left. Those a little less bitter were pointing out that Dennis Law had done it and so had Peter Schmeichel, Brian Kidd, Andy Cole, Owen Hargreaves and Carlos Tevez and it didn’t feel like a betrayal then. As it turns out, Ronaldo isn’t adding to the list of those who joined Manchester City after playing for Manchester United. Manchester for him will now always mean United.

“How are you feeling @ManUtd fans? Always dreamt but never expected that it would happen! Welcome back in Manchester @Cristiano,” tweeted former United goalkeeper and Ronaldo’s erstwhile teammate Edwin van der Saar. He could be talking pretty much for every United fan.

“In my personal view there are few players that, and I think Cristiano Ronaldo is included and (Paris St-Germain’s new signing Lionel) Messi of course, decide where they are going to play,” said Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola earlier in the day when it was not yet clear whether Ronaldo would be on the blue or the red side of Manchester.

There have been reports that Sir Alex Ferguson, who Ronaldo has said has been like a second father to him, put in a word after City pulled out.

Ferguson had got him to United in 2003 for 12.4 million pounds because Carlos Queiroz, his then assistant, had spoken highly of his compatriot. Ronaldo had starred in a friendly against United while playing for Sporting Lisbon and needed no time to settle down in the rough and tumble of the Premier League. He was given the No.7 shirt worn by David Beckham–who had moved to Real Madrid–George Best, and Eric Cantona because Ferguson saw potential in that thin, young teen who was comfortable with both feet but tended to showboat.

Ferguson moulded him into a confident attacking player during a wonderful relationship that lasted six seasons; one which fetched eight major trophies including the Champions League. Before Ronaldo moved to Real Madrid for a then world record 80 million pounds, he had scored 118 goals and won the Premier League Golden Boot in 2007-08. It is said Ferguson and Ronaldo would have a bet before each season as to the number of goals he would score and the figures would always go up in the next season. Ronaldo also won the Ballon d’Or as a United player.

At different times, Ferguson had said that for him, Ronaldo was the best footballer in the world, one who couldn’t be replaced at United. “He never feels afraid or pressured. He does what he thinks is best,” Ferguson had said. In his early years at Real, United never really ruled out the possibility of Ronaldo returning.

That return has happened when Ronaldo is 36. It will cost United a pretty penny — 15m pounds in salary and a further 8 million in add-ons, and Juventus paid 21 million pounds according to reports. All this, in a season where they have spent 107 million pounds to get Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane. But it fits in a summer of some incredible signings that began with Lionel Messi moving and with reports that Kylian Mbappe too would.

“We’ve always had good communication,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said of his relationship with Ronaldo. But now that he has arrived, it would be on Solksjaer, who played with Ronaldo at United, to fit him in. Like it is with Mauricio Pochettino at Paris St Germain. Ronaldo’s No. 7 shirt is taken by Edinson Cavani and it is unlikely he will replace the Uruguayan as the sole striker. He is still obsessive about fitness — look no further than that goal against Germany — but Ronaldo can’t play as a wide player. And if he plays in a central attacking position, well, where does that leave Bruno Fernandes, United’s most consistent player since he joined in January 2020?

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any crazier in this summer window, Solksjaer let it be known that Fernandes has been talking to Ronaldo to let him know what United feel about him. “If he was ever going to move away from Juventus he knows we’re here,” said Solksjaer on Friday. A few hours later, it was done.

A homecoming then, if ever there was one.

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