Jose Mourinho may have got a mixed reception at his old club Chelsea at the weekend, but Cristiano Ronaldo should have no doubts about going back to Old Trafford when Juventus take on Manchester United in the Uefa Champions League on Tuesday.
Ronaldo remains the best player most current United fans have ever seen play for their team. In his six seasons in Manchester between 2003-2009, the Portuguese went from being an 18 year old of immense potential to the best in the world as United were crowned English, European and world champions in 2008. Ronaldo scored 118 goals in 292 games. His 42 goals in 2007/08 included 31 Premier League goals, the highest for a United player in the English top flight in 47 years.
It’s not the first time he has been back. Ronaldo received a standing ovation on his last visit with Real Madrid in 2013. It’s unlikely to be quite so ecstatic on Tuesday, since United fans aren’t feeling as pleased about their team under Mourinho as they were that year under Alex Ferguson, Ronaldo another reminder of United’s fall from grace.
Ronaldo’s annual flirtations with a move back to Old Trafford during Real Madrid contract renewals also tired United fans. The boy had cried wolf too many times and they simply didn’t believe he would ever re-sign. But even Ferguson was convinced that he was coming back in 2013 that he told his players. In the event, Ronaldo stayed in Madrid and Ferguson stepped down. The club haven’t been close to greatness since.
Had United not sold Ronaldo to Madrid for a then world-record transfer of £80 million (Dh294m), the club which reached three European Cup finals in four years between 2008-2011 would have been significantly better. But Ronaldo was always clear about his wish to play for Madrid and United fans were fortunate he was at Old Trafford for so long. By the end, Johan Cruyff opined: “Ronaldo is better than George Best and Denis Law.” He was the first United player to be crowned European player of the year since the days of United’s holy trinity of Best, Law and Bobby Charlton.
There will be plenty of renditions of "Viva Ronaldo", a song which took off on the run to winning the Champions League title in Moscow in 2008. “Running down the wing, hear United sing, Viva Ronaldo,” chorused the 2,800 United fans on a warm spring night in Rome after he had put his side ahead in the quarter-final with a magnificent header. Many United fans had previously avoided making too strong an emotional attachment to Ronaldo. His self-confidence could be taken for arrogance, his posturing pretentious. And there was always the (justified) fear that he wanted to leave. But by 2008, he had won everyone over, not least the hard-to-please Milanese press who, after AC Milan had brushed past United a year earlier, asked “Why is there such hype about Cristiano Ronaldo?” and “We knew he was style over substance, but there wasn’t even any style.”
United haven’t had the world's best player at Old Trafford since, despite the club claiming that they can match any club in terms of transfer fees and wages. United won the Premier League in each of Ronaldo's final three seasons at the club but failed to do so in the one that followed his departure. It is impossible to replace Ronaldo, but United fans hoped for better signings than Michael Owen, Gabriel Obertan, Antonio Valencia and Mame Biram Diouf. Only Valencia would prove a long-term success.
Ronaldo joined Juventus this year to help them win the Champions League, a competition they have reached the final of twice in the past four years. Ronaldo’s Madrid beat them in the 2018 final, and in buying Madrid’s best player they hoped to deny their Spanish counterparts his talent and boost their own cause. Madrid already miss his goals.
Juventus are leaders and favourites of a tough Group H which also includes Valencia and Young Boys. Lots of former United players will attend the game to see their former teammate, but United must avoid what happened the last time Ronaldo visited – a 2-1 defeat. He can soak up the deserved applause again, but, United supporters hope, not as a victorious player.