The idol patted his chest and appeared overwhelmed. If the aim of United’s
followers was to inflict paralysis-through-kindness it worked for the first
25 minutes, until Mourinho, in the coaching area, stoked the fire in his
best player’s belly by urging him to attack.

“Viva Ronaldo. Put him on a plane, bring him home from Spain,” sang a United
fan as the streets around the ground filled more than three hours before
kick-off. Albert Morgan, Sir Alex Ferguson’s kit-man, threw his arms around
the returning megastar as he floated towards the away dressing room, his
baseball cap inverted.

The awkward dynamic behind Ronaldo’s first appearance here since he entranced
the Old Trafford crowd over six eventful seasons (2003-2009) was that United
wanted to celebrate his contribution without letting him anywhere near their
net. They wanted to love and crush him all at once.

Nothing could have emphasised his value more than Wayne Rooney’s failure to
make the starting XI. These two were partners in the 2008 Champions League
winning side. They were meant to walk parallel paths to greatness.

Yet the only possible reading of Ferguson’s pre-match comment about Rooney
“needing a game” was that ‘Wazza’ was not in the right physical condition
for a test of this magnitude and may not be around too much longer.

In Madrid in the first leg Ronaldo put Rooney in the shade. United’s man tried
hard enough in a wide scuffling role but Ronaldo was the aristocrat, with
his trampoline-leap above Patrice Evra for Real’s equaliser. CR7, as he has
slightly annoyingly come to be known, extended his long rampage into two
Clásico wins over Barcelona. In the United programme, Mike Clegg, the club’s
former conditioning expert recalled: “He pushed his body and mind as far as
he could go.” These tales about how zealously Ronaldo applied his talent
were bound to be juxtaposed by Rooney’s omission, which even his wife,
Coleen, saw fit to question on Twitter.

The United player chosen to go head-to-head with Ronaldo was Giggs, the Welsh
Peter Pan. The Ronaldo hoopla was kept in check a bit by the Giggs landmark.
Ferguson even revealed that he had kept the ageless Giggs away from the
action against Norwich at the weekend so the breakthrough could come on this
more glamorous occasion.

On the main concourse here stands a statue of the great “trinity”: Best, Law
and Charlton. Legends abound in the iconography of Old Trafford. Ronaldo
stands high among them. The unusual part is that he left without a trace of

The supporters here have only fond thoughts about him and want him back: a
vain hope, probably, but one worth holding on to, given his troubles in

Diego Maradona said of him at the weekend: “He’s a beast. I saw him physically
on Saturday and he looks even bigger close up, he seemed like a giant.” A
player who “preys on the weak”, according to Gary Neville, Ronaldo is not
immune to sentiment. When the spotlight fell on him for the first time, he
blasted a free-kick into the United wall. He then went through a quiet patch
before Mourinho stepped in to roust him up. The pace of his feet picked up,
the angle of his runs became more varied. He was not dominating his old
friends, though. United tracked his diagonal runs in gangs and refused to
allow him to control the area in front of their back four.

The second half opened with a calamity for Real: an own goal by Sergio Ramos
that placed Mourinho’s job on the line until Nani’s dismissal sent Old
Trafford into paroxysms. For half an hour United needed to defend their
slender lead as Ronaldo pressed himself against Nemanja Vidic and Rio
Ferdinand: his old comrades, now recast as enemies.

Up stepped another former Premier League star, Modric, to fire a shot against
David de Gea’s left-hand post and into the net. Then a low cross by Gonzalo
Higuaín found Ronaldo sliding in at the far post.

Goal, Ronaldo. How often had United fans rejoiced at those words. This time,
though, the scorer was not celebrating. Ronaldo held his hands up
apologetically. There was no need for regret. He is the greatest player
United have ever found outside the UK and the best they have ever lost: the
brilliant monster they helped to build.

Cristiano Ronaldo comes back to destroy dreams of Old Trafford in Manchester … –
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