WOLVERHAMPTON, England — Cristiano Ronaldo was everywhere as Manchester United beat Wolves on Sunday, even though he was actually 1,500 miles away in Lisbon while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team earned a hard-fought 1-0 victory at Molineux.
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Whether it was the United fans in Ronaldo shirts — many of them dating back to the days when he wore the No.7 for Sir Alex Ferguson’s team between 2003 and 2009 — the visible numbers of Portugal flags in honour of the new arrival from Juventus or the constant hum of the 3,000 United supporters singing “Viva Ronaldo,” there was no escaping the only subject on everyone’s minds.
“It’s like a dream to have him back,” United goalkeeper David de Gea said. “It will be great: it’s already great, you can feel it in the atmosphere. Hopefully he can bring something special to make the team even better.”
There was even a life-size cardboard cut-out of the 36-year-old, wearing his old United kit, among the visiting supporters, which danced around throughout a game that for lengthy stages, saw Solskjaer’s team torn apart by another speedy forward in Wolves’s Adama Traore. If Traore possessed just a fraction of Ronaldo’s ruthless ability to convert chances, United would have been comfortably beaten before Mason Greenwood won the game with a right-foot shot in the 79th minute. But while Traore is full of exciting pace and power, his return of seven goals in 146 appearances for Wolves tells you everything about his end product.
In the end, United unquestionably emerged with a fortunate victory, especially so considering that the build-up to Greenwood’s goal could have resulted in a red card for Paul Pogba for a challenge on Wolves midfielder Ruben Neves, which went unpunished by referee Mike Dean.
Solskjaer’s team also owed a huge debt to De Gea following a series of crucial saves — most notably his double-stop from Romain Saiss in the second half — for the win that moved them to third, two points behind early leaders Tottenham. It also ensured that United set a new English record by extending their unbeaten run away from home to 28 league games.
But in this final game before Ronaldo returns to Old Trafford, we saw a United that’s still a flawed work in progress under Solskjaer. De Gea was outstanding, as were centre-halves Harry Maguire and debutant Raphael Varane. Luke Shaw was also impressive, but Fred was an accident waiting to happen in midfield, losing the ball repeatedly, while forwards Jadon Sancho and Daniel James offered little throughout.
Ronaldo, in Lisbon to undergo a medical before completing his return to Old Trafford following the upcoming international break, may have watched his new team and wondered what he was letting himself in for.
When he left United for Real Madrid in 2009, he was leaving the reigning Premier League champions – a side boasting world-class talents such as Wayne Rooney, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes and Carlos Tevez. He will be coming back to a very different United side, and a club that’s won nothing since 2017 and not claimed a Premier League title since Ferguson retired in 2013. But Ronaldo’s return will do many things for the team and the club. He will sprinkle plenty of stardust over Old Trafford, for a start, but he will give United a formidable cutting edge up front, demand improvement from his teammates and give the fans reason to be cheerful.
The United supporters have been ecstatic ever since the club hijacked Manchester City‘s pursuit of their old hero to agree a deal with Juventus on Friday and, for a fanbase that was in open revolt against the owners, the Glazer family, last season, the mood is now completely transformed.
“It’s the best thing ever,” Tony, a travelling United fan, told ESPN. “We’ve wanted Ronaldo back ever since he left 12 years ago, and I don’t care how old he is or what he has done since. He’ll still the best player in the world and I can’t wait until he makes his [second] debut for us.”
Another fan, Pete, told ESPN that Ronaldo’s return has restored some of the belief United have lacked since Ferguson’s departure over eight years ago.
“Having Ronaldo back gives us our swagger again,” he said. “United have always been about having the best players and the biggest stars and we haven’t really had that for a few years now. But all of a sudden, we’ve got Ronaldo again, and it feels great to be able to say that.”
With a fee agreed with Juventus (€15m plus €8m in add-ons) United are now waiting for Ronaldo to complete his medical before officially confirming his signing. The forward is due to play for Portugal against Republic of Ireland in Faro on Wednesday, before further games against Qatar and Azerbaijan, but Solskjaer is hoping to have Ronaldo in Manchester as quickly as possible.
“We need to get all the paperwork done and hopefully we can get that sorted and announce it 100% before he goes away with Portugal,” Solskjaer said. “They’ve got three games, the last game is on Tuesday (Sept. 7), so we can get him back to Manchester and then hopefully he’ll be involved ASAP.
“He’s not signed to sit on the bench. He’s going to make us a better team, of course.”
The problem for Solskjaer is that, while Ronaldo will undoubtedly make United a more potent attacking force, they still have issues to address in midfield, both in terms of balance and personnel. To get the absolute maximum from Ronaldo, Solskjaer needs a strong midfield behind him and Pogba free to play in a more advanced role than the holding position he was given alongside Fred at Wolves.
But all managers have selection dilemmas and tactical headaches. The difference for Solskjaer — and it is a positive one — is that nobody else has the luxury of being able to call on Ronaldo to paper over any cracks.
On and off the pitch, there really is no downside for United when it comes to having Ronaldo back.