Hand it to Cristiano Ronaldo; the Real Madrid forward certainly knows how to court public opinion in both Madrid and Manchester as the clock ticks down to United’s fixture with the Spanish giants next month. The Champions League Round of 16 tie will bring Ronaldo back to Old Trafford for the first time since an £80 million June 2009 transfer to the Spanish capital – and the Portuguese forward is keen to ensure his United legacy remains intact ahead of the clash.
No surprise there, with Ronaldo holding a seemingly permanent come hither gaze over the past three years. Indeed, while the 27-year-old has scored at greater than a goal-a-game at the Bernabéu, his has not always been a positive relationship with Madrid’s supporters. By contrast, the Stretford End continues to sing songs of its former hero – like a jilted lover, longing for a partner now stepping out with a new beau.
Nostalgia is no friend of the tribal spirit, and Ronaldo is one of a very select group to actively seek a move away from United in the past two decades, but the forward is guaranteed a positive reception at Old Trafford.
Not least after Ronaldo admitted this week that he still holds a candle for the old flame.
“I still have a great feeling of friendship and love for them, they are a team that have done a lot for my career,” said Ronaldo, who is yet to sign a new contract at the Bernabéu.
“The fans know me well and I have a lot of friends there that I keep close to my heart. But now I’m defending Real Madrid’s colours. It’s a bit of a sad feeling I guess. But I want to score, and for us to win, and that would make everything better.”
How fitting that United travel to Madrid for Ronaldo’s rendezvous with his former team-mates the day before Valentines. The return in Manchester will come a long three weeks later. It promises to be the tie of the tournament to date, with Madrid odds-on with the bookies to triumph over two legs.
Either way, Ronaldo can hardly fail.
Yet, the Portuguese has endured a difficult relationship with Madridistas since he gained the “dream” move to the Spanish capital three years ago – the faithful not always appreciating Ronaldo’s self-assuredness despite brilliance on the pitch.
Nor, indeed, Ronaldo’s apparent obfuscation over a new contract – an issue that has brewed for six months. The forward admitted last September that he was “sad”, amid speculation that Madrid is seeking to cut back on the player’s huge net wages.
Ronaldo earns around €12 million per season before tax – up to €10.5 million net under the current Spanish tax regime. Yet, with the ‘Beckham Law’ now defunct for new contracts Madrid may need to double its gross outlay to keep Roanldo’s take-home pay on an even keel.
The eye-watering numbers put into perspective unrealistic media speculation about a potential transfer back to to Old Trafford, despite the “pact” the player reportedly made with Sir Alex Ferguson over a return to Manchester should he ever leave Real.
“I won’t talk about my contract renewal any more, it’s not important,” adds Ronaldo, who has scored 170 goals in 169 appearances for Los Merengues.
“The most important thing is winning our next matches. We are contesting La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League and it’s important that we all stick together.
“Right now I’m feeling more comfortable with the fans – not just at the Bernabéu, where I’ve always felt good, but outside too. They’ve shown me a lot of love. I want to pay them back in the best way possible, which is playing well, giving my all and helping Madrid to the top.”
Still, with Madrid 16 points behind Barcelona in La Liga, and José Mourinho seemingly on his way out of Real in the summer, upheaval is inevitable at Real. Should the Portuguese remain uncommitted come June, the Madrid club may yet face a dilemma amid the furor of a summer Presidential election.
After all, with just 12 months left on the player’s deal, the asset value may begin to depreciate if a deal remains on the table, unsigned. It is a scenario that might bring Manchester City to the negotiating table and test Ronaldo’s enduring “love” for everything Red.
In the meantime Old Trafford awaits Ronaldo’s return, and manager Sir Alex Ferguson will lionise a player whom he has always offered a sympathetic ear. United’s ability to massage a delicate ego more sensitively than the political bear-bit of Madrid has not been forgotten.
“We had the privilege of him for six years and he will go down as one of the best players this club has ever had,” said Ferguson recently.
“It will be fantastic to have him back. When he comes on to the pitch at Old Trafford he will get a great reception, quite rightly. He came here at 17 and developed himself into a great footballer. We are proud of the part we played in his career.”
Whether that pride will continue through a United victory over Madrid is yet to be determined. Certainly the Reds’ form has peaked at the right time, although with Real so far adrift in the league Mourinho may do well to prioritise European success.
After all, it is the Champions League that is most desired at Bernabéu – not least because Barcelona has secured the trophy three times since Los Merengues last claimed to be champions of Europe.
Victory, if it comes, first over United and in then in the tournament itself, may yet be Cristiano’s finest moment. United supporters will probably love him no less.