Opinion: Ronaldo has enhanced his United legend
When Cristiano Ronaldo completed his return to the club last summer, how would you describe the reaction of United fans?
I'd go for a phrase like: "Overwhelming euphoria." Or "Giddy excitement." It was a dream come true for so many Reds, who had spent years idolising Ronaldo and then pining for him as he broke a sea of records at Real Madrid.
However, I'd argue that, behind the euphoria, there were a few unacknowledged doubts. Ronaldo was, after all, 36 years old. He'd not played in the Premier League since 2009.
No-one would say it out loud, but lurking underneath that veneer of collective exhilaration was a terrifying thought: would it all go horribly wrong? Would the memories of 2006-09 be slightly tarnished by an unflattering second act?
Collectively, it's not gone well for United this season – of that there can be no doubt. But remarkably, as we head towards the close of the season, Ronaldo's legendary status is being enhanced with each passing week.
Another Man-of-the-Match performance, in the 3-0 win over Brentford on Monday, was the latest dazzling turn, and the Portuguese could be seen blowing kisses to the adoring Old Trafford crowd come full-time.
He had one goal disallowed for a very marginal offside, but then nabbed his 24th of the season by converting a penalty – which he had won himself, obviously – in the second half.
Two more goals and he will match the goalscoring output (26) he produced in his previous Reds season: a 2008/09 campaign which saw Sir Alex Ferguson's team win a third consecutive league title, reach a second consecutive Champions League final and be crowned world champions.
And that's precisely why Ronaldo's legendary status is being enhanced right now: because his individual figures and performances are so, so consistent, despite the fact that he is operating within a side that has not functioned well for much of the season.
Sir Alex's United squad of 2006-09 was stuffed with legendary players, with experience, with world-class young talents, with champions and internationals in every position.
In that team, if Ronaldo did not score, Rooney would, or Carlos Tevez. Michael Carrick produced the winning goal at Wigan that all but sealed the title towards the end of that 2008/09 season.
But at the moment, Ronaldo has scored 10 of United's last 13 goals.
And it's not just the goalscoring; it's the leadership. In Ronaldo's first spell, he could look up to Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Edwin van der Sar, among others. Those players set the standards in the dressing room and out on the pitch.
Now, Ronaldo is by far the most experienced player in United's squad, and he is leading from the front. It's been so visible in recent weeks, with the team at its lowest ebb. Ronaldo's all-round play seems to have clicked into another gear.
His link-up play has been razor-sharp. He's been seen running back to make lunging tackles to win throw-ins. Little moments that speak volubly of his competitive instincts and personal pride.
In recent weeks, some have suggested that United have nothing to play for. I get what they mean: a club like ours measures itself by how close it comes to the biggest trophies, and rightly so. United are not going to lift any silverware this season, and Champions League qualification is out of reach.
But in Ronaldo's world, there's always something to play for, because Ronny has worked out that sporting greatness starts with the naked desire to test and stretch yourself; to eke out every last drop from your own reserves of talent. It's a great lesson for any human being to take on board, football player or not.
There's another painful factor to consider, when weighing up Ronaldo's fantastic current form. Cristiano's infant son died in childbirth recently, and nobody will ever know just how traumatic that tragedy must have been for the player and his family.
There's no right or wrong way to respond to something inexplicable like that. I wouldn't have criticised Ronaldo if he'd ended his United season there and then, and asked for months of compassionate leave.
But the fact he has chosen to dig in and fight alongside his team-mates until the end of a really disappointing season is hugely admirable.
Maybe the football, and doing what he normally does, is helping him from a mental perspective. But fans look at his performances with great respect given what he has been through in the last few weeks.
Ronaldo is nothing like the buccaneering, lightning-quick, all-purpose forward we saw in his first spell. He's closer to Denis Law than George Best these days: a predatory goalscorer who sniffs out chances and can score from all kinds of angles.
He's not as quick, and he's unlikely to play through 60 games in a season.
But there are other things that he can bring, and he's given plenty to Manchester United in this trying 2021/22 season.
As we head towards its close, he's still inspiring, and still fighting. Much of the rest of this season has been a letdown, but Ronaldo's return has more than lived up to the billing.
Whatever happens, and however long he stays, United fans will not forget the veteran's drive and determination to deliver what this club deserves, despite the most difficult of circumstances.