Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick saves Manchester United after Harry Maguire slip against Spurs

Ronaldo returns fitter, sharper and fresher with laser focus all over the pitch

Band James Ducker

Tom Brady seemed to enjoy that moment Cristiano Ronaldo picked up the ball from 25 yards out and fired a shot into the top corner with all the precision of one of the former NFL star’s throws as much as anyone at Old Trafford.

Widely considered the greatest quarterback in American football history, Brady, after all, knows a thing or two about pleasing a crowd. There were more smiles from the seven-time Super Bowl winner when Ronaldo restored Manchester United‘s lead 26 minutes later with his second of the game and those chants of ‘Viva Ronaldo’ once again pierced the early spring air . And, as for this late winner to bring up his hat trick, well.

It’s hard to know how familiar Brady is with United’s current situation, but anyone at Old Trafford could have explained that that, in fact, hasn’t been the way of things lately for Ronaldo. and marked a dramatic, if not timely, return to form for a player who looked his age after years by giving the impression that he was superhuman.

In fact, his much-heralded return to the club was a huge departure from the script the Glazers had in mind when they sanctioned the signing of the Portuguese striker at great expense last summer in the hope, yes, that he could do for United what Brady had recently done. for their Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL franchise.

While a 43-year-old Brady helped end the Bucs’ 18-year wait to win the Super Bowl 13 months ago, Ronaldo hasn’t had the same galvanizing effect in Manchester. Not close.

Indeed, United have looked as far from equipped to win the Premier League title this season as any time in the dysfunctional nine years since they last lifted the trophy, despite the heavy outlay. transfer last summer. So much so that this game was all about frantically staying in the hunt for the top four with nine matches to go.

With Spurs and Arsenal both having games in hand, United simply had to win. Defeat could realistically have ended their hopes of Champions League football next season – barring an unlikely victory in Paris in May. Step forward Ronaldo.

The narrative around Ronaldo this season is not centered on a happy return, but on whether he presents more problems than he solves. Then you watch this and wonder who else is going to score the goals to get United back to the Champions League next season? Out-of-form Marcus Rashford a marginal presence at best against Spurs once again? The less spotty, eternally half fit Edinson Cavani? Paul Pogba? Come on.

For long stretches of that harrowing game, until Ronaldo came off shortly after his game-winning goal, it felt, certainly from an attacking perspective, like Ronaldo and Jadon Sancho, ably backed up by Fred, were playing against the Spurs on their own. Ronaldo had eight of United’s 10 shots in the game and many of them felt like they were served by Sancho who, after a torrid start, appears to be gaining confidence by the week.

Yet even Ronaldo must have known that his first two goals alone were not going to be enough to win such a delicately balanced game and, while those moments from the stands have been rarer this season, it was another one of those occasions where the fivefold World Player of the Year had bent a game to his own will.

Interesting was Ronaldo’s reaction to Harry Maguire – the United captain with whom there was reportedly considerable tension – turning the ball into his net as Spurs drew 2-2. Ronaldo, an expression of irritation and disgust on his face, swung his arms in frustration. This is where the annoyance began and ended, however. From the kick-off, he was back on it. Laser focus.

There was a lot of scrutiny surrounding his absence in last Sunday’s derby capitulation at Manchester City with a hip flexor injury and the decision to fly to Portugal without the knowledge and without the permission of his manager Ralf Rangnick. It wasn’t a good look and no surprise Rangnick, reluctant to discuss the matter at his pre-match press conference on Friday, wanted to quickly move on.

But, whatever the good and bad sides of that, Ronaldo looked much better for the rest: fitter, fresher, sharper. It wasn’t just the goals. He worked the channels well, held the ball, fell into space. He even did his part defensively and made an important header late in the game. His winning goal, rising the highest to hit Alex Telles’ corner with his header, was the classic Ronaldo.

For weeks he seemed to be running on empty, even his bizarre physique unable, at 37, to withstand the rigors of playing every few days in Europe’s most demanding league. Unfortunately, Rangnick didn’t have many viable alternatives to lead the line.

Let’s be clear – Ronaldo wants and expects to play all the time. But if United had other players scoring frequently and dominating games, he would probably be more willing to accept a little less playing time. But, without them, is it a big surprise he thinks he should be? one of the first names on the team roster?

Can he start all over again against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League on Tuesday? United sincerely hope he can.

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