The story had its happy ending. It was preordained, a narrative honed to perfection by an army of script writers to usher in this new age of football as entertainment content. And the star was always going to be centre stage.
From the moment you disembarked the train in Manchester, the energy in the city centre was evident and the narrative established. Only one shirt number was worn: No.7. Only one name was being sung. The choruses of ‘Viva Ronaldo’ were breaking out on cue at the station concourse, on street corners and in pub gardens like something out of a Walt Disney musical.
It was like the old days, as though only one team mattered in Manchester. At times it felt like only one person mattered. Cristiano Ronaldo was back in town and it was impossible unconscious of that fact. Gigantic posters draped from a Victorian warehouses announced it, newspaper headlines roared it, social media was abuzz with it.
Cristiano Ronaldo stole the show in a devastating attacking display from Manchester United
Old Trafford’s returning hero struck twice against Newcastle on his second debut for the club
And, unerringly, Ronaldo delivered. ‘He does what he does,’ said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Indeed he does, the Manchester United manager finding unexpected profundity amidst the banality of the post-match press conference.
Sport shouldn’t be like this. There should be a degree of unpredictability, an element of chance to proceedings. ‘He smells big moments, continued Solskjaer.
‘The demands he makes of himself, of us, of his team-mates, he lifts everyone. He makes everyone so focussed.’ So even when United plodded slowly forward in that first half, unsure of their formation and unconvincing in their build up play, you suspected what was coming.
United’s co-owner Avram Glazer sat behind the soon to departing Ed Woodward. Grant was back for his first post pandemic visit. Woodward is the man who once tried to sell Manchester United to Jurgen Klopp as football’s equivalent of Hollywood. Both must have been delighted.
Ronaldo celebrates his second goal in front of delighted United supporters on Saturday
This, rather than the dog’s abuse the Glazer family receives when proposing Super Leagues and debt finance projects, is presumably what Avram had in mind when the family bought United.
Solskjaer alluded to this. ‘The atmosphere has changed. A few months back you, think how it was here.’ Indeed. Pitch invasions and death threats, a fan base as disaffected as Newcastle as the Super League rose and fell. All changed now. Perhaps all forgotten. ‘This is what Man Utd supporters should feel like,’said Solskjaer, feeding off the positivity.
That said, all wasn’t quite what as it seemed. Few fairytales are. Amidst the black and white narratives, there are often elements of grey. You can still hear anti Glazer chants amidst the carnival. And while score-line said United are back; the performance perhaps offered more hope for those teams better than Newcastle United.
United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will now be purring at his attacking options at the club
Take Ronaldo’s opening goal. It came on the cusp of half time, after a laborious first half performance. It was created in a sense by Mason Greenwood’s strike, but really by goalkeeper Freddie Woodman’s fumble into the path of Ronaldo.
But no-one worried that the first goal back was a tap-in from three yards. Everyone celebrated like it was the 40-yard drive against Porto in 2009.
It was that kind of afternoon. Newcastle United were afforded the role of ‘the other team’ when the Harlem Globetrotter come to town. And yet they didn’t quite fit the type. With cooler heads and calmer finishing, they might have upstaged the leading man.
Newcastle’s chances in the first half came from a consistent pattern. In the eighth minute the famous No7 broke though at pace, jinxing defenders one way then the next.
But when it came to the finish, Joelinton shot wide; on 28 minutes, Joe Willock robbed Fernandes, charged into the United area and shot high into the Stretford End; and then on 38 minutes Sean Longstaff broke into the box and yet lost his footing at the crucial moment.
United fans were excited to see the Ronaldo play his first United match for 12 years
A theme was developing which begged a crucial question. Just who will pick opposition runners from deep in this line-up of iconic superstars? Will it be Paul Pogba, pushed back deeper and deeper as United sign more and more attacking players?
The joyous performance and festival of assists that he produced from wide left on the opening day of the season was a distant memory, replaced by an understated deep lying midfield performance.
Nemanja Matic was nominally the man entrusted with patrolling those deeper areas. For the most part, Newcastle had only fitful ambition and so he could do so adequately.
But you couldn’t help but think of those original Galaticos, assembled by Florentino Perez at Real Madrid, which saw key holding midfielder Claude Makelele sacrificed so that the original Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and David Beckham could all play. Incidentally, that quartet never won a trophy together in that era.
United though now look heavily weighed towards attack, a problem that affected Real Madrid’s ‘Galacticos’ who struggled to find much success despite boasting world class stars
They upshot of all of this was an unscripted, impromptu diversion from the preordained narrative when Newcastle equalised on 56 minutes. Every opposition team analyst will surely eyeing up the acres of space in the United midfield when United are subject to a counter attack.
Miguel Almiron certainly relished it. He beat a couple of players and then just strode on unopposed for 40-50 yards, hardly believing the ease of his passage. He fed Allan Saint Maximin, who in turn played in Javier Manquillo, whose finish across the face of goal was impressively decisive.
It turned out this was just one of those tension-building devices script writers employ to create an even more dramatic finale.
Paul Pogba may have to play in a deeper role so United can show their full attacking style
For Luke Shaw then made a similar bold run into the Newcastle half and Ronaldo, with that scampering little sprint of his, demanded the ball be passed to him. Bearing down on goal, ball at feet, into his stride, the fear amongst opponents is almost palpable.
Maybe that accounted for the goal, as the strike wasn’t the best but Woodman made a hash of it again, allowing it through.
Bruno Fernandes would score the third on 80 minutes, a characteristic strike from the edge of the box which partially answered the question as whether he will thrive in his attacking role with Ronaldo in the team.
But Newcastle still exposed the Red Devils, missing chances before Javi Manquillo’s equaliser
And at the end even Jesse Lingard was on the scoresheet, with a smile somehow more authentic and broader than Ronaldo’s.
As such, Old Trafford didn’t need quibble about the details or the troublesome questions.. ‘This was a day for everyone to enjoy’ said Solskjaer.
‘This is what Cristiano is about.’ That song, Viva Ronaldo, echoed around the stadium, the hero had returned and all was well with the world.