REAL Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo will take centre stage on his return to Old Trafford tonight but it is a situation the Portugal international is more than comfortable with.
The 28-year-old faces former club Manchester United in the Champions League on the ground he used to call home for the first time, knowing the expectation on him is greater than any who take the field.
It is not without reason, as Ronaldo has scored an incredible 185 goals in 184 games since swapping England for Spain in the summer of 2009. This season he has 33 in 35 matches but, ominously for United, has not found the net in his last three appearances.
United manager Sir Alex Ferguson insisted his team did not fear their former favourite, but they will be acutely aware he can most likely decide the destiny of the tie – finely-balanced at 1-1 – on his own.
United fans will have mixed feelings as they welcome back a hero before kick-off before spending the next 90 minutes-plus hoping he has the worst game of his life.
His manager, Jose Mourinho, has no doubts his star man will step up to the challenge and not feel the burden of expectation.“I think he is fine as far as I am aware,” he said. “I think any accolade he gets is more than deserved and I think the reception he will get from the crowd will be deserved.”
Team-mate Xabi Alonso – once a north-west rival for Liverpool – counts his lucky stars Ronaldo will be wearing white this evening and is not still in the red of United. “He is looking forward to it because it is a very important game against United,” said the Spain international. “Before the game I am sure he will get a great reception but on his mind is just to play a good game and get through this stage.
“It is very different playing against him (Ronaldo) than it is playing with him and I am lucky he is on my side, and I prefer to have him on my side.He is in terrific form at the moment. He has been very decisive in many important games and he that is what we are looking for tomorrow.”
Real go into the match on the back of two wins over arch-rivals Barcelona but Alonso insists United’s good form – they have not lost in any competition since a Champions League dead rubber against Cluj on 5 December – more than cancels that out.
“We’ve enjoyed two day’s decent rest (since defeating Barca 2-1 on Saturday) but both teams go into the game in decent form,” he said. “I think independent of what has happened in the last week in the two different competitions (Copa del Rey and league) we are coming into the game in good form and so are Manchester United.
“It is a very open tie, we come here knowing we need to score and they know they have to defend properly, but it will be very tight and close to call. It is a massive game and will be decisive in both teams’ seasons.”
During the press conference a fan had to be ejected after interrupting proceedings by asking Mourinho if he was going to be the next Pope. United’s security team had been aware the man had gained access and had made the decision not to intercede until after proceedings had finished, but when he shouted out he was removed peacefully.