Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo returns to his old city tonight, for the Champions League semi-final first leg at Manchester City, with a feeling he is coming towards another crucial moment in his career.
Ronaldo missed Madrid’s 3-2 La Liga win at Rayo Vallecano on Saturday with a hamstring problem, but is expected to be named in the XI and receive a fiery reception at Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester United’s bitter rivals City.
Between 2003 and 2009 a more callow Ronaldo won three Premier League titles and one Champions League with Manchester United, while also receiving his first Ballon D’Or trophy. His personal record with United against a then middling City team was mixed however — 11 ‘derbies’ brought him just four goals, but two red cards.
Since moving to Spain, Ronaldo’s statistics in most things have improved, including his goalscoring against all Premier League clubs.
He scored both home and away as Tottenham were beaten 5-0 on aggregate in the 2010/11 UCL quarter-finals. The following year he scored an injury-time winner at home to Man City during the group stages, and also netted in both games when facing United in the last 16. This included the winner at Old Trafford, ruining former mentor Alex Ferguson’s dream of European success in his final season.
Ahead of that return, Ronaldo admitted that United remained close to his heart. “The game will be special because everyone knows I played for six years at ‘El Manchester’ and I’ve a lot of affection for the club,” he said then. “It will also be special to meet the Old Trafford fans again. They’ve always treated me well. I’ve a lot of affection for them.”
Regular similar comments have kept alive hopes among United fans and the British media that the Portuguese might return some day. During tortuous contract negotiations back in September 2014, a group of Reds fans hired a plane to fly a ‘come home Ronaldo’ banner overhead as Madrid played at Villarreal. Occasional audacious reports even had the now even richer City as a potential buyer, although Paris Saint-Germain always seemed [and still seems] his most likely next European club.
The feeling that Ronaldo misses England, and Manchester, has not gone away. Such unbroken affection from Old Trafford contrasts with the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu’s love being more conditional on him always scoring goals.
The current season has again seen Madrid’s all-time record goalscorer regularly whistled by his own fans, and criticised by local pundits.
After demonstrating his enduring value by scoring a hat-trick to eliminate Wolfsburg 3-2 on aggregate in the Champions League quarter-finals on April 12, Ronaldo said he knew he would never win over everyone in Spain.
“I’m always being criticised,” he said. “I accept it, I’m used to it. In Spain, it is like this. I’ve been here seven years, I’m 31 now, so these things cannot affect me at this stage.”
At that point, Ronaldo had come through what had been a mixed season personally into flying form. He was up to 16 goals in this season’s UCL — one short of his own record for a single European Cup campaign, set in 2013/14. He had also scored the winner in a ‘Clasico’ victory for Madrid that derailed Barcelona’s season, temporarily at least. That run though ended last week when Ronaldo hurt his hamstring attempting a spectacular bicycle-kick at goal against Villarreal, with Madrid already 3-0 up.
Such ambition has been defended by current coach Zinedine Zidane, but brought more criticism from those who feel his pursuit of individual glory sometimes hurts his team.
More new contract talks are looming into view, with his current deal set to end in June 2018. The United talk has revved up again, although just last week came reports that he and Madrid president Florentino Perez were considering an extension until 2021, when he will be 36.
Gareth Bale has long been seen as Perez’s choice as the next main man at the Bernabeu. And with Ronaldo out, he stepped up to score twice and help the team come from 0-2 down to win 3-2 at Rayo Vallecano on Saturday, and keep Barca honest in the title race.
Bale has yet to score at all in the Champions League this season however, and the Welshman also still has many doubters around the Bernabeu.
Zidane has more or less admitted Ronaldo is sure to start tonight, regardless of whether he has recovered 100% or not. Two years ago he also played through pain and criticism to help Madrid to win the Champions League.
There are many reasons why he would like to score at the City of Manchester stadium tonight, and take another step towards repeating that achievement.
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