Muted celebrations—when a player refuses to celebrate having scored against a former club—so often come across as forced. As if prompted through fear of supporter backlash rather than genuine sentiment. But there was something heartfelt about Cristiano Ronaldo’s muted celebration against Manchester United.
His return to Old Trafford, four years after leaving as the world’s most expensive player, was always going to pluck at the Portuguese winger’s heartstrings. But as he stuck away a cross at the back post to send United crashing out of the Champions League he held his hands up in apology.
Ronaldo even cast an apologetic glance to the Stretford End crowd with evidently conflicting emotions flickering behind his almost glazed gaze. Most muted celebrations feel feigned. This one was genuine.
Indeed, Ronaldo—for all his astonishing success at Real Madrid—still holds United close to his heart, so it is perhaps unsurprising that speculation linking him with a return is sparked with tidal frequency.
Numerous reports last summer claimed that Ronaldo was keen on such a move, with United desperate to make a statement following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson.
A new five-year contract said to be worth £15 million a year, as per Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail, put an end to that particular strand of speculation. And yet the rumours linking Ronaldo with a Man Utd return have never been heftier.
Criticism of Real Madrid president Florentino Perez from the player himself has prompted reports that Ronaldo is unhappy with the club’s transfer policy. Guillem Balague, as per Sky Sports, even claimed that things are ”in place” for the 29-year-old to switch the Spanish capital for the English northwest.
Despite the transfer window closing less than three weeks ago, the prospect of Ronaldo returning to United all of a sudden seems very real.
Just over a year has passed since rumours of a Ronaldo return last dominated the gossip column. It’s widely accepted that had Sir Alex Ferguson remained at United, beyond the eventual date of his retirement in May 2013, Ronaldo would have made the move back to Old Trafford.
Is it a coincidence that Ronaldo held off for so long on signing a new contract with Real while uncertainty over Ferguson’s own future at United lingered?
Of course, Ronaldo ultimately made the correct decision. As a Galactico Ronaldo came to physically represent the search for Real Madrid’s holy grail—La Decima. And he finally delivered the 10th European Cup in May, scoring in a 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid in the final.
But having achieved all he can at Real Madrid, including lifting his second Ballon d’Or, is the time right for Ronaldo to return to where he enjoyed his football most?
His move back to Old Trafford would be righting the club’s biggest wrong in recent times. Selling Ronaldo is the biggest mistake the Glazer family have ever made, and they’ve hardly kept a clean copybook over the course of their 10-year tenure of the club.
United didn’t just sell their best and Europe’s best player when they took £80 million for Ronaldo. They set a precedent, which has resulted in the situation the club currently finds itself in. It started the dilution of United’s status as a European superpower.
Presumably Ronaldo steered clear of David Moyes’ Man Utd because he saw a club on the downward turn, but under Louis van Gaal the slump would appear to have at least been halted.
In fact, United have taken such a turn, especially in the transfer market, the club’s fans are asking themselves: Do we even need Ronaldo?
On the face of it, it’s a valid question. United have just splurged nearly £60 million on Angel Di Maria with Radamel Falcao signing on loan on transfer-deadline day. Where would another top-tier attacker fit in?
However, there comes a point where pragmatism crosses into foolishness. Of course United need Ronaldo. There is not a side in Europe that wouldn’t be improved by his arrival.
Even if it siphons away any funds for a much-needed defender, Van Gaal must sign Ronaldo if the opportunity is there. To even question that borders on the absurd, and yet there are some United supporters who insist the club has moved on without its best-ever No. 7.
The truth is that Ronaldo’s appearance for Real Madrid at Old Trafford last year shows that he still casts a shadow over United, and United still cast a shadow over him in turn.