When Real Madrid arrived in Manchester on Tuesday, their star man strode through arrivals with his white socks pulled up to knee height like a bronzed, Portuguese Pippi Longstocking - the kind of look you can only really pull off if you are firmly in your comfort zone. And as he made his way out of Manchester Airport he was greeted with a nice little banner (Chelsea fans take note) that read: 'Welcome home Cristiano Ronaldo'.
What is without doubt one of the biggest club games of the season does have the feel of a homecoming event for a man named World Player of the Year thanks to his exploits with United in 2008, but his former employers would do well to avoid making him feel too comfortable. Not if they want to stay in the competition any longer.
The Ronaldo that returns to Manchester for the first time since 2009 is a vast upgrade on the one who left. He may have become a man under Sir Alex Ferguson after joining the club as an 18-year-old from Sporting, but he has become a mutant at Madrid. A player with a superhuman scoring record who can jump high above his marker and hang in the air, seemingly for a couple of seconds, to power home a frankly outrageous header as he did in the first leg.
After helping his team to two victories over Barcelona in the space of a week, the simple question is: can United stop him? The immutable Law of the Ex in football suggests not, but if they are to have any chance the first priority must be restricting the number of chances he enjoys on that familiar stretch of turf, if at all possible.
The focus on Ronaldo has naturally led people to reflect on the last time Madrid came to Old Trafford, when the Original Ronaldo, as ED likes to call him - or, if you are being as uncharitable as Fergie yesterday, "the older one, the fatter one" - scored a remarkable hat-trick in a 4-3 defeat that nevertheless sent Madrid through to the semi-finals in the 2002-03 season.
It was a thrilling game marked by a performance of sheer genius from Ronaldo. It is also rumoured to be the game that consummated Roman Abramovich's love for football and inspired him to purchase Chelsea, meaning the "older, fatter" Ronaldo should in theory be held at least partly responsible for the fact that Fernando Torres is accompanied by the prefix "£50 million man".
United's 6-5 aggregate loss over two legs that season was not the only stone-cold classic to involve the two teams at Old Trafford. In the build-up to tonight's game, you are more than likely to see repeated footage of Fernando Redondo's outrageous backheeled move to lose Henning Berg and tee up Raul in a 3-2 win in 2000.
Both were Champions League classics - matches to get the marketing men drooling and the UEFA suits dreaming of mountains of cash larger than the Alps located near to their Swiss HQ. Games to make a continent stand still in admiration. The expectation is certainly there for tonight's match too. As Jose Mourinho said yesterday, "the world will stop to watch this tie."
United won't want to entertain the globe with another spectacle tonight though, not with Ronaldo on the pitch.
They won't want a fabulous, open game, with both sides thrusting forward on the break with reckless abandon. They won't want a game tailored to attackers. United might be handy on the counter but in Madrid they face the masters of the trade, and in Ronaldo arguably the most devastating forward on the planet.
The template for United isn't two wildly memorable matches against Madrid from the past, it's a lesser-loved 1-0 win against Barcelona that took Sir Alex Ferguson's side through to a Moscow final in 2008. Paul Scholes struck after 14 minutes of a game that witnessed only five shots on target in 90 minutes. Wes Brown performed heroic feats - it was that kind of night.
Extreme, bone-shuddering tension was the order of the day - not dizzying attacking. Seeing that a 1-1 draw in Madrid gives United the upper hand, you can bet that if Fergie has his way, a repeat of that performance against Barca will be attempted. Why take a risk and open yourself up to some inevitable punishment from Ronaldo?
Ever the admirer of his former protege, Ferguson admitted in the build-up to tonight's game he is struggling to put together a strategy to contain a man who has scored 185 goals in 184 games for Real Madrid. Well, sort of. "I've got a plan to stop him," Fergie said. "It's called a machete. Plan B is a machine gun!"
Mind you, if attempted murder is his game, perhaps he should ask Ashley Williams to come and boot a ball at Ronaldo's greasy noggin when he embarks from Madrid's team bus.
It's rare to see Ferguson quite so in thrall to an opponent's ability - whether player or manager - but with Mourinho and Ronaldo he seems to radiate in their brilliance. It tells you something about his respect for them, admiration even.
Patrice Evra touched on a similar, luvvy-duvvy theme at the weekend when he said: "It is difficult when you play with love. Cristiano will get a great reception on Tuesday because of what he achieved for Manchester United. The fans will never forget what he did. Also, he still loves the club."
It's not exactly 'Welcome to Hell' is it?
Evra went on: "This is his house, so there will be a lot of emotion. I hope he doesn't play well because of that."
Ronaldo's return to Manchester has all been very pleasant so far. But if United indulge him at all on the pitch, and allow him to treat Old Trafford as 'his house', they will be punished for it.
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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "You never know, but I don't think so." - Jose Mourinho during an entertaining exchange with Paddy Crerand, in which the former Manchester United player pressed the Portuguese on whether he might replace Sir Alex Ferguson at the Old Trafford helm.
FOREIGN VIEW: “The DBU has given Nicklas Bendtner six months to reflect on his international future. The DBU respects the right of all players to a private life, but equally there are certain rules of public behaviour that international players are expected to respect.” - Naughty Nicklas Bendtner learns he has been suspended for six months by Denmark after being charged with driving under the influence. This punishment is presumably added to the secret arrangement which has apparently seen the 'striker' suspend all club activities for the past couple of years.
COMING UP: Well, yeah, it's Manchester United v Real Madrid at 19:45. What else could you want? Paul Parker and Andy Mitten are both blogging on that very subject today while we also have a special Ryan Giggs feature lined up as he prepares to make his 1,000th appearance. That's not the only match on tonight though: we also have hipster wet dream Borussia Dortmund v Shakhtar Donestk for your delectation.
- Sports & Recreation
- Cristiano Ronaldo
- Sir Alex Ferguson