Ronaldo was back at Old Trafford for the first time since 2013
Wednesday 24 October 2018 12:29, UK
Cristiano Ronaldo returned to Old Trafford under a cloud but out on the pitch his presence was a reminder of what Manchester United lack...
Several minutes had passed since the final whistle and most of the players had already disappeared down the tunnel when two young Manchester United fans decided to try their luck. One after the other, and from different corners of Old Trafford, they jumped over the advertising hoardings and hurtled towards Cristiano Ronaldo.
Both were mobbed by security guards before they could reach him, but not before the first had pulled a mobile phone from his pocket. Ronaldo took it from him and happily obliged with a selfie, drawing cheers from the stands. Having earlier created the goal which gave Juventus their 1-0 win, yes, it is fair to say he enjoyed his return to Old Trafford.
The 33-year-old had struck a defiant tone on the eve of the game, reiterating his denial of the rape allegation levelled against him and defending his reputation. What happens next in that case remains to be seen, but what is certain is that it did not distract him from the task at hand. This was not Ronaldo at his blistering best - he is a different player to the one who left United in 2009 - but he was still instrumental in the win.
Ronaldo's reception was not on quite the same level as the one he received when he returned to Old Trafford for the first time in 2013, but he was still loudly cheered when the teams were read out before kick-off. Outside the stadium, fans could be seen snapping up replica scarves bearing his name from opportunistic merchandise vendors.
"He will always be a huge player for us," said one season-ticket holder milling about near the Sir Matt Busby statue outside the East Stand.
Ronaldo looked around his old home and smiled broadly as he stepped out onto the pitch with his team-mates, and from the first whistle he looked at it. In the sixth minute, there was smart footwork as he turned away from Ashley Young and drew the first of many fouls. Soon after that, he provided a glimpse of his old pace as he beat the same man to a loose ball.
Ronaldo's starting position was on the left, but he was given licence to swap positions with Paulo Dybala and Juan Cuadrado, and it was from the right that he set up the goal. Chris Smalling could not get enough on his wicked, near-post cross and the loose ball fell to Dybala, who finished coolly past the exposed David de Gea from close range.
Ronaldo came close to scoring himself soon after half-time, forcing an acrobatic save from De Gea with a rising drive from 18 yards out, but his performance was more a story of maturity and, believe it or not, teamwork. He only misplaced three of his 35 passes. There were stepovers but there was also sensibleness. He helped retain possession with the ball and ran the channels willingly without it.
While Ronaldo and his fellow Juve forwards shone, United's floundered.
For Lukaku, it was an eighth consecutive game without a goal and further proof he struggles against the top sides. Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini are formidable opponents - Mourinho joked they should give centre-back classes at Harvard University after the game - but it was still damning his first and only shot came in the 83rd minute.
Either side of him, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial fared little better.
A darting dribble into the box by Rashford was a rare moment of individual inspiration in the first half, but there was little else from him to get fans off their feet. At the break, he had only completed three passes. By the end of the game, he had not had a single shot on goal.
Martial offered slightly more in that regard, forcing Wojciech Szczesny into a rare save in the closing stages, but on the only occasion he made it in behind the Juventus defence, Bonucci was there to snuff out the danger with a precise sliding tackle. Paul Pogba struck the post soon after that, but United finished the game with six shots to Juve's 14.
Their attacking issues were compounded by a lack of alternatives on the bench. Alexis Sanchez, the latest in a long line of players to have struggled since taking on Ronaldo's No 7 shirt, was out with an injury, and with Jesse Lingard and Marouane Fellaini also absent, Mourinho's only attacking option was untested 18-year-old Tahith Chong.
Mourinho defended the misfiring Lukaku in his post-match press conference, describing him as a "fantastic professional who wants to give everything for the team", but the Belgian's disappointing performance, together with those of Rashford and Martial, contrasted sharply with Ronaldo's purposeful and professional display for Juventus.
The Portuguese has found himself in the eye of a storm off the pitch, but he is unaffected on it and his ability to consistently influence the big occasions evidently remains. It is almost a decade since his departure, but this return to Old Trafford was a reminder of what United are missing. The pitch invaders after the final whistle suggest the fans know it, too.
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