The story had its happy ending. How could it not? It was surely preordained, a narrative honed to perfection by a team of script writers to usher in a new age of football as entertainment content.
From the moment you disembarked the train in Manchester, the energy in the city centre was evident. Only one shirt number was worn: No.7. Only one name was being sung through the street.
The choruses of ‘Viva Ronaldo’ were breaking out on cue on station concourses, street corners and in pub garden like something out of a Walt Disney musical. It was like the old days, as though only one team mattered in Manchester.
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
Cristiano Ronaldo was back in town and it was impossible not to be conscious of that fact. Every gigantic poster hanging from a Victorian building, every newspaper headline, every preview of the game screamed it and demanded an event.
And the unerringly, Ronaldo delivered. Sport shouldn’t be like this. There should be a degree of unpredictability, an element of chance to proceedings. Yet 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.
Avram Glazer sat behind the soon to departing Ed Woodward, who once tried to sell Manchester United to Jurgen Klopp as football’s equivalent of Hollywood, must have been delighted. This, rather than the dog’s abuse he receives when positing Super Leagues and debt finance project, is presumably what he had in mind when the family bought United.
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. The score-line said United are back; the performance perhaps offered more hope for those teams better than Newcastle United.
Ronaldo celebrates his second goal in front of delighted United supporters on Saturday
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. 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. When the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team roll into town, there is always the need someone to play against them. Decent pros no doubt but very much to make up the numbers and provide token opposition amidst the spectacle.
Such was the role of Newcastle United here. And yet they didn’t quite fit the type. They did look as overawed as the younger United players by the occasion, not least Woodman, who had an afternoon to forget. But with cooler heads and calmer finishing, they might have upstaged the returning icon.
United fans were excited to see the Ronaldo play his first United match for 12 years
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.
A theme was developing which begged a crucial question. Just who will pick opposition runners from deep in this Galactico line up? 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, from which he often lost possession.
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 here adequately.
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
Paul Pogba may have to play in a deeper role so United can show their full attacking style
But you couldn’t help but think of the original Galaticos, assembled by Florentino Perez at Real Madrid, which saw key holding midfielder Clade Makelele sacrificed so that the original Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and David Beckham could all play. Incidentally, that quarter never won a trophy together in that era.
The 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.
But Newcastle still exposed the Red Devils, missing chances before Javi Manquillo’s equaliser
But maybe this was just one of those tension-building devices devised to create an even more dramatic finale and send the crowd home happy. 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 striker from the edge of the box which might have answered some questioned as whether he will thrive in his attacking role with Ronaldo.
And at the end even Jesse Lingard was on the scoresheet, with a smile lighting up the stadium celebration. So Old Trafford didn’t need quibble about the details. Viva Ronaldo cascaded around the stadium, the hero had returned and all was well with the world.