Ronaldo plays the sun king before United storm the Juventus fortress‘He ran to the corner, arms outspread, and raised the hem of his shirt in celebration, rippling those 33-year -old abdominals.’
Well, that was a glorious little blast from the past. And no, Cristiano, not in the way you were hoping. Grit, pluck, a feverish belief in the plan: it seems odd now that just a few weeks back these were precisely the things this Manchester United team seemed to be lacking.
Instead of which on a mild, still, occasionally fevered night in Turin United produced a moment of Barcelona-lite, a group stage homage to the triumphs of 1999, turning 1-0 down into 2-1 up in the final four minutes.
There was even time for some high-grade toxic José Mourinho theatre at the end. First United’s manager could be seen waving his arms and stamping his feet like an angry little marionette as Marcus Rashford, through on goal, had the temerity to try to actually score rather than running it into the corner, or hiding in a hole with the ball up his jumper, or poking a passing pensioner in the eye, or whatever else José had in mind.
As the final whistle was blown Mourinho could be seen punching the air furiously. Not a punch of joy, but an actual nose-crushing series of straight rights in his moment of triumph. Finally he marched out on to the pitch and was confronted by Leonardo Bonucci, irresistibly riled by this figure in black, cupping his ear to the crowd, producing a horribly weird, mocking sneer.
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A match that had looked like fading out into the mutual handshake of a useful draw with an hour gone had become something else entirely. A match that had looked like becoming a paean to the great Cristiano with 63 minutes gone had become something else again.
And from here there will be a temptation for some to see turning points, thresholds crossed, a sense of ignition for whatever third-season, late-stage José United is supposed to look like. If this is perhaps a leap too far two things are certain. First, this United team produced a display that Mourinho will treasure for its discipline and its hard edges.
And second, this is the best single result of the Mourinho era. Juventus don’t lose in Turin. Stretching back to 2003 Juventus had been beaten just once in 35 home Champions League group stage games before last night. The Allianz Stadium is an ugly, remote, strangely impenetrable fortress, shoved in behind a shopping mall moat and a high wire fence. Inside it’s a magnificent, steeply banked amphitheatre, with its deafening Eurotrash PA, the familiar squeal of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck as the home players come out to warm up. Juve under the lights like state-of-the-art stadium rock football. Except, not quite this time.
For the first hour United had been tough and gristly, a team playing an older version of European football, a matter of stilling the crowd and calming the tempo. It is worth remembering who they were up against too, and not just the man Mourinho referred to as “that player” afterwards. Although, yes, mainly him. There had been a mere six pages on this game in Gazzetta on Wednesday morning, under the heading “Il Big Match”. Cristiano Ronaldo the sun king, dominated most of it, with Paul Pogba’s return little more than a curio.
Mourinho had packed his team with hustle. In front of Pogba, Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard foraged either side of Alexis Sánchez. Watching from high up in the gods there was something slightly comical about the sight of Sánchez veering about after Giorgio Chiellini and Bonucci, legs whirring, like a puppy chasing shadows on the wall.
With 15 minutes gone Ronaldo had taken 10 touches, three of them shots at goal. There were a few moments of dizzyingly fine close control from Paulo Dybala, who appears to have a strangely hypnotic, sensual relationship with the ball. United were quietly playing well. They were compact and calm in their charcoal grey away kit, the kind of colour the artisan paint charts call armadillo breath or autumn toenail. Runs were tracked. A shape was maintained. Ashley Young has become a vocal leader in this team. Before kick-off he went around hugging every one of his teammates and whispering words of succour in their ears. And he was solid and spiky here, a skinny little warrior on that right flank.
When it came Juve’s opening goal was a masterpiece conjured up out of some steady pressure. It was made by Bonucci’s sublime lofted pass, but mainly by the run, Ronaldo’s feet suddenly pounding the turf like a boxer hitting the speed bag as he drove through the centre of the United defence. As the ball fell, slowly, gently over his shoulder he didn’t have to break stride, spanking it with the top of his right foot past David de Gea. He ran to the corner, arms outspread, and raised the hem of his shirt in celebration, rippling those 33-year-old abdominals. And so we remember, at this difficult time, not only Cristiano’s ab-ripple, but also Pardew’s dance, its close forebear in the vanity-hubris stakes.
United’s change changed the game. Juan Mata floated in a lovely free-kick to score with his third touch. The winner was bundled in from another set piece. United had silenced, and then infuriated, the stadium. And whatever happens from here to this muscular, pared back, increasingly convincing side, they will always have Turin.