Pitchside Europe

Ronaldo returns to Manchester, where he is still revered


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Ronaldo celebrates scoring against Levante in La Liga (Reuters)

Cristiano Ronaldo was on the phone to Manchester, as he often is. He told former team-mates that he was coming to the city for Real Madrid's first ever game at Manchester City and wanted to know who was about to meet up and liven up his 24 hours in a hotel.

He was deflated to hear that Manchester United have changed their travel plans for European away games and now stay overnight afterwards so that players and staff get a night's sleep. United will return from Istanbul this afternoon (Wednesday) just a few hours before Madrid meet City.

Ronaldo was cheered though to hear that several key United players would be rested for the trip to Istanbul and said he would love to see them. And several of the United players and coaching staff will be at the Etihad tonight.

If there's an opportunity to scout future opponents on your doorstep then you'd be foolish not to take it, especially if that game promises so much. United play City in 11 days and could easily meet Madrid in the Champions League this season, a game which would see Ronaldo return to his former home.

When a footballer leaves a club, they promise to keep in touch with their soon to be former colleagues. The reality is often different. Footballers have few genuine friends among other players and the stream of texts becomes a trickle as fewer and fewer people the player once knew remain at the club.

Sir Alex Ferguson, the usual recipient of Ronaldo's calls, didn't move anywhere. The pair speak frequently and compare football notes. Managers have often communicated with players from rival clubs, even if they haven't worked together. Liverpool's legendary boss Bill Shankly used to call Manchester United midfielder Paddy Crerand at home on a Sunday morning in the 60s, getting him out of bed to talk football.

Shankly had an insatiable thirst for football knowledge. The best managers are like sponges, soaking up information and various influences and opinions. The best players are always seeking to improve, to listen to advice from those they respect most.

Ronaldo's respect for Ferguson is absolute. The Scot helped make him the player that he is today during his six years at Old Trafford, turning raw talent into a player worthy of being named 2008 European footballer of the year. Ronaldo has continued to improve in Madrid, his determination for personal excellence the greatest asset to his game. If it hampers his performance then Ronaldo won't touch it, from cigarettes to the wrong type of food.

Ronaldo didn't love Manchester and what he considered the endless grey days of cold and rain. He moaned about it in training — and Ferguson was right to laugh off talk of him ever playing in Russia last week given his intolerance to cold - but he loved United and he loved his manager and has said on more than one occasion recently that he'd like to play for the club again.

The United fans adored him too. Still do. Only Eric Cantona gets his name sung more frequently by fans who holler: "Viva Ronaldo, Running down the wing, hear United sing, Viva Ronaldo". Several have got tickets in the Madrid end tonight, taking advantage of the usual poor travelling support of Spanish clubs to see their former hero. He'll be booed mercilessly by City fans, but that goes with the territory.

Ronaldo needs to be loved and he felt that in Manchester. Ferguson knew this and complimented him publicly, even if he was frustrated with him. He told United's media department to do the same, so that Ronaldo's ego could be indulged. He would have stayed, but sated after winning everything with United, the urge became too strong to play for Madrid, a club which has more kudos than United on his home island of Madeira.

He doesn't get the same treatment in Madrid, whose fans are harder to please and easier to alienate. In September, Ronaldo announced that he wasn't happy, but refused to specify why. In the game against City at the Bernabeu a few days later, fans briefly booed him when Madrid went behind, only to cheer him when he scored a decisive last minute winner. He was then given a standing ovation, highlighting the fickleness of fandom. Nor is he delighted to not even be in the top 10 best paid players in the world either, behind three of the City players he'll face tonight.

Ronaldo gets on well with his compatriot Mourinho, who, at 49, will tonight become the youngest manager to reach 100 European Cup games in charge, but he isn't as close to him as he was to Ferguson. The Scot reached 100 European Cup matches at 62, though the increased number of games since the inception of the Champions League two decades ago distorts the statistic.

Ronaldo is no slouch in Europe either. Aged just 27, he'll play his 85th Champions League match tonight, hoping to add to his 43 goals — a sublime record for the highest level of competition. He'll score many more, but whether he'll do it wearing white of Madrid isn't the certainty it seemed a year ago.

Andy Mitten will be blogging for us throughout the season. He contributes to FourFourTwo, the Manchester Evening News and GQ magazine amongst other publications.

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