Cristiano Ronaldo has scored just one hat-trick for Manchester United. Until there. He came against Newcastle at Old Trafford in 2008. Thirteen years and 57 career hat tricks later, Ronaldo could make his comeback on the same pitch against the same opposition.
But how much has changed?
This is the plot of Ronaldo’s return.
There can’t be many players who have played alongside a manager who turns 50 next season. Perhaps United fans will remember Ronaldo’s previous appearance at Old Trafford against Newcastle in 2006. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has scored twice.
Coincidentally, those two matches helped bring Manchester United back to the top of the Premier League table. If Tottenham fail to beat Crystal Palace early next week, Ronaldo will have the opportunity to inspire a repeat. Could he keep them there?
In answering this question, there is a balance to be struck. Difficult in the midst of the cacophony that began on social networks with the announcement of his return before resounding in the halls of Molineux last weekend well before the kickoff against Wolves. Long live Ronaldo.
It’s trite to say that no player is bigger than the club – certainly not this club. But with Ronaldo, it might seem a bit complicated. His Twitter account eclipses that of Manchester United of 67 million, his Instagram account amounts to 336 million against 46 million for United.
It’s not so much a brand as it is an industry. And he negotiates for success.
Manchester United won in his absence but not for long.
In the past eight years since they last won the title, Ronaldo has won the Champions League four times – more times than Manchester United have made it past the group stage.
During that time, no player has scored 20 goals in a Premier League season for the club.
In contrast, Ronaldo never not has scored 20 league goals in one of twelve seasons since leaving the club for the first time.
We know what has changed at Manchester United.
A decade of decline in which new rivals have emerged and expectations have become so low that United could sign not only Ronaldo but Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho in the same summer and Gary Neville is still hesitant to talk about his title chances.
What has changed for Ronaldo will be fascinating.
He’s clearly not the same player who left Old Trafford, for better or for worse. At Real Madrid, he appeared more machine than man, his 450 goals scored in 438 games.
All players love to score.
Few can claim that affection is reciprocal.
Goals like Ronaldo.
Even now, his body still sculpted but his once irresistible allure having deserted him, the goals remain true. They were 29 in Serie A last season, even as Juventus struggled and debate over their diminishing ability raged in Italian media.
For Portugal this summer, its game appeared more refined, mobility more restricted. He now stalks matches rather than stomping on them. But the goals always gravitate towards him.
The victory over Hungary illustrated this perfectly. He did very little. Then he scored. And then he scored again. The Man of the Match award followed and by the end of the tournament Ronaldo was his top scorer. He has distilled this game to its essence now.
That might be enough for United.
There is already rhythm and movement in attack. Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood can provide it. There is already creativity in the midfield. Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba have the imagination and the skill to spot passes that others cannot.
Aside from a starting midfielder, what they need is more of the us that Edinson Cavani provides, scoring instincts which, despite all his qualities, continue to elude Anthony Martial.
Ronaldo has become this penalty poacher.
In his first season at Real Madrid, only 1% of his attempts came from inside the six-yard box. In his last season at Juventus, that figure had risen to 11%, a career high. No Serie A player has scored so many goals inside that six-yard box last season.
He will score a lot for United.
As for his teammates, some will wonder if he is choking rather than inspiring on the pitch. At Juventus, even as he plundered, the team’s return in goals was actually lower in each of his three seasons there than it had been before he arrived.
While he’s done his best job inside the box these days, Ronaldo gravitates to that left flank as well, looking to cut inside from there. With both Martial and Rashford favoring this area and Sancho started there in his early days, tough decisions have to be made.
But his influence off the pitch could also be significant.
Ronaldo’s dedication to his profession remains fierce, showing a total commitment to giving his best. The hope is that this will help create a winning culture within a squad that looked a bit light on the trophies before Ronaldo and Varane signed.
The demographics of the locker room are changing and the mood with it. Even Sir Alex Ferguson’s involvement in persuading Ronaldo to return to United’s golden age. Nostalgia is part of it all in a club steeped in tradition even as it looks to the future.
It will be everywhere against Newcastle. How good does Ronaldo have to be to justify this excitement? Even at a fraction of his old powers, that should be enough to make a difference.
After all, he doesn’t need to be better than former Ronaldo. The bar is set much lower than that. That’s Martial and his tasteless performance in the draw at Southampton. It’s Daniel James, all full of energy and little finesse as the team worked against Wolves.
How good is Ronaldo at 36? Fairly well – and he knows it.
“History will be written again,” said the man himself.
“You have my word.”
There is still little reason to doubt him.
The free Manchester United vs Newcastle United highlights will be available on the Sky Sports website and app, as well as the Sky Sports Football YouTube channel, from 5.15pm on Saturday 11 September.