LONDON – You just knew Cristiano Ronaldo would score in Madrid on Wednesday and Manchester United fans are bracing themselves for more of the same at Old Trafford when he makes an emotional return to the Theatre of Dreams.
The fact is, Ronaldo scores in most games, as his record of 183 goals in 180 matches proves. No player is unstoppable, but Ronaldo pushes this theory to the limits. No wonder Sir Alex Ferguson said: “When he gets the ball you are praying.”
The best players perform on the biggest stage, they rise to the occasion, literally so in Ronaldo’s case as Real Madrid and United drew 1-1 at the Bernabeu. Television told us the world was watching the game and so finely balanced is the tie that the return on March 5 will probably go intergalactic.
Ronaldo’s headed goal would have had Isaac Newton rewriting his thoughts on gravity as the Portugal international indulged in a spot of suspended animation above a bewildered Patrice Evra.
Experiments showed Ronaldo can jump 7.9 with a runup, higher than the average NBA player. Poor old Evra never stood a chance.
The arguments about who is better, Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, will continue, but one area where the Real superstar has the edge is in the air. In fact, Ronaldo may just be the best header of the ball in the world. It is a skill that is going out of fashion, the days of the burly center-forward who could out-muscle defenders long gone. Heading means risking being punched or flattened by a goalkeeper or risking a boot in the head from a defender. Such things do not deter Ronaldo who once again delivered when it really mattered. But then he always does.
He has played in five major finals for Portugal, scoring in each one.
This season he became the first player to score in six consecutive clasicos; put Ronaldo on the biggest of stages and he does the business. Only a fool would bet against him scoring on his return to Old Trafford next month. Jose Mourinho is confident Real will score in the away leg and not just because of Ronaldo, “most teams do score at Old Trafford” he said and he’s right. United has shutout only six of 18 visitors this season.
In Madrid, United triple-marked Ronaldo, with Phil Jones providing extra cover for right-back Rafael and Wayne Rooney tracking back to help. The truly great players cannot be stopped as they work out how to beat even the most smothering of marking and Ronaldo finds space when there appears to be none.
Credible arguments can be put forward for both United and Real to progress, but apart from Ronaldo’s goal record, the most daunting stat for the Reds is that Ferguson’s record against Mourinho is W2, D7, L6.
In 2004 the self-styled Special One introduced himself to England by running down the touchline as Costinha’s goal knocked United out of the Champions League. Any celebration next month is likely to be less theatrical, but maybe Mourinho will have no cause for joy next time, Ronaldo or not.
I THINK I must be missing a trick. Jose Mourinho, it is widely reported, is likely to take over from Carlo Ancelotti at Paris St Germain next season.
What is Ancelotti doing wrong?
PSG has a six-point lead at the top of Ligue 1 and beat Valencia 2-1 in Spain in the first leg of the Champions League knockout stage. It is, by all accounts, playing superb football, so if it ain’t broke why change the manager?
Mind you, under Ancelotti, Chelsea won the double and then finished second in the Premier League, but that didn’t stop Roman Abramovich from giving the Italian a hefty compensation payout. Whether PSG’s Qatar-based owners are as trigger-happy and generous remains to be seen.
Mourinho is at war with his players and especially the Spanish media. The only thing the press and the Portuguese have in common is their opinion of each other. In contrast, Mourinho was charm personified with English football writers this week, saying his next job would be in the Premier League though Jose doesn’t blink without an agenda. He is “definitely” leaving Real at the end of the season but then he was “definitely” leaving last summer, too.
One day there will be a successor to Sir Alex Ferguson, but even the United manager probably doesn’t know when or who this will be. This week, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said one day he’d like to manage United — a question he was hardly likely to answer in the negative — but Ferguson is not surprised by the former super sub’s success since he stopped playing.
As manager of United’s reserve side he led it to victory in the Lancashire Senior Cup and Manchester Senior Cup before taking over from Age Hareide at Molde. In October 2011, Solskjaer won the Tippeligaen with Molde in his first year, the club retaining its Norwegian title the following year.
Ferguson said the reason Solskjaer was such an effective substitute was because he studied every game and was always prepared when he came on.
As a player he was also an apprentice coach, learning from the master.
Being an Old Trafford icon does not qualify you as United’s next manager, but it’s a good starting point.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.