By George Ankers
A strange feeling must have greeted Cristiano Ronaldo as he set foot once again in Manchester. The feeling of having been here before… only something’s not quite right. ‘False deja vu’, if you will, in football speak.
Manchester used to be Ronaldo’s city. Considering his consciousness of image, he was probably not all that far away from wearing the sheriff’s boots and badge to prove as much.
He has been gone for three years and, though the architecture of the place remains as it was, the landscape has changed.
There are the comforting reminders of the familiar beckoning from his former home at Old Trafford. In the centre of midfield, all of Ronaldo’s old friends remain, the personnel preserved like a shrine to the Portuguese’s glory years. That may, in fact, be the most plausible explanation yet as to why Sir Alex Ferguson has not bought anyone in that position for so long.
Still there, too, is the man supposed to be Cristiano’s ready-made replacement. Sadly, though, Nani has been more of an Oxfam Ronaldo than a genuine copy. The broad outline – galactic levels of self-importance, tricky-taka wing play and being Portuguese – is there but the strike-rate to justify it all is missing.
Instead, Ronaldo’s heir most apparent on the right wing is Antonio Valencia, who could hardly be more of an antithesis. The Ecuadorian is the straight man to Ronaldo’s showman, the Terminator to his James Bond.
Valencia is very good but is essentially a freight train with a brilliant cross and, effective as a freight train is, it does not lend itself well to idolisation in the Cristiano mould. That’s where Robin van Persie comes in.
The closest thing to Ronaldo at United since the man himself left – not in form but in fan feeling – it is hard enough for regular students of the English game to get used to seeing the former Arsenal man in a different red shirt. Imagine how strange and jarring it will be for the returning hero.
Nevertheless, Van Persie has inspired that ‘I can’t believe he’s on our side’ sentiment more than any Red Devil since the Portuguese prancer’s exit. Though his grey-flecked ‘Just For Men’ charm may not be quite to his predecessor’s Hugo Boss tastes.
There remains a barely contained lust for the Ronaldo years among the United faithful, however, no matter how many goals the Dutchman scores. As Sir Alex Ferguson talks of the so-remote-as-to-be-impossible-yet-plausible-enough-to-talk-about possibility of bringing him back, it has stirred that craving just enough to reach the surface.
You do not have to look for long on Twitter to find a fan wistfully declaring that they would gladly flog Van Persie to Manchester City (or kill, which might be slightly more palatable) if it meant having the Madrid star back to thwack home infuriatingly unstoppable free kicks once again. Still his name is sung with gusto at Old Trafford.
The enduring United obsession with Ronaldo is typified by former team-mate Gary Neville extolling his many virtues. It is perhaps accentuated by the fact, as the former right-back noted, that he could be so frustrating in the period before he really hit his massive potential. Old Trafford watched a bona fide world-beater ‘Hulk out’ before their eyes. He still feels like their giant green rage monster.
And so, when their by-proxy Avenger lines up for Madrid at the Etihad Stadium, it will feel like a Manchester derby every time that the ball reaches his feet – which it will do. A lot.
How strange, of course, for Ronaldo to even be facing City in this context. When he departed Manchester, United’s neighbours were just beginning their evolution. For years they were the younger child sat in the corner of the city, punching themselves repeatedly in the face. In the summer of 2009, they had advanced to punching themselves with fists full of clenched banknotes.
Now that child has grown, stopped beating on itself and instead taken to beating not only United but the whole country. ‘How did they let that happen?’, Cristiano must think. It will only get worse when he sees a familiar face wearing the wrong colour, as Carlos Tevez lines up for the champions of England.
Together at United, the poodle and the pitbull won a Champions League and two Premier Leagues before taking off in different directions in the same summer. No matter what the result on Wednesday, though, Ronaldo’s destination ensured that he won the battle for lasting affection.
So he returns, like a ringer brought in specifically on behalf of United to put down their upstart rivals’ bid for European glory for another year.
If he proves decisive in doing so – and he usually does – then Ronaldo’s long-distance love affair with Manchester will be reinforced. And those fans smiling wistfully at Sir Alex’s “Christmas wish” might find themselves on their knees, begging for one more stepover. For old times’ sake…
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