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Wednesday, September 17, 2008
ESPNsoccernet: September 23, 11:11 AM UK
Respect for Ronaldo on United return

Richard Jolly

The line between confidence and arrogance can be a fine one. Cristiano Ronaldo can seem it cross it as often as he centres a football from the flanks, but his sense of self-importance can be justified. 'When I play the fans will love me again,' he had said. He was right. The public flirtation with Real Madrid may have been demeaning for a club of United's stature. There might have been a hint of realpolitik from the United support, applauding Ronaldo more as a player than as a personality. And it could have been an indication of the desperate requirement to lift this game from mediocrity. But he played, and they loved him. This was less narcissism than realism. Some granted him a standing ovation simply for removing his training top. The vast majority did, along with the loudest cheer of the evening, when he replaced Ji-sung Park. It may have been his fellow replacement, Anderson, who was saluted from the stands in a popular chant thereafter, but while Ronaldo wasn't serenaded, he was appreciated. 'I think it's important to Cristiano,' said Sir Alex Ferguson. 'He now realises what a great club he's at and how loyal there are to him. I think that he knows the great supporters have always been behind him. He's deserved that. He's given us great moments.' As he knows, half an hour of Ronaldo, even on his first appearance for 12 weeks, is rather more captivating than an hour of the alternatives. Tonight illustrated that. Ronaldo couldn't quite transform a stalemate into a success, but he came dangerously close to being the alchemist. He had been on the pitch for six minutes when he initiated the sort of swift counter-attack that was all too familiar last season. Advancing at pace, he picked out Wayne Rooney who squared the ball for Carlos Tevez. He beat goalkeeper Diego Lopez, but Gonzalo Rodriguez, in an outstanding piece of defending, retreated to clear from his compatriot on the goal-line. Ronaldo was integral, too, when United beat Lopez for a second occasion. He delivered a curling cross from the right wing and Jonny Evans plunged forward to head against the back post. The 42-goal man almost opened his account for the current campaign with a header. 'Yes, he did cause us one or two problems,' said the Villarreal coach Manuel Pellegrini. 'There were two things. One, he is a great player and two, he had fresh legs when other players were getting tired.' Yet Villarreal actually came closer, Guille Franco supplying a deft backheel to Angel Lopez's cross to clip the inside of the woodwork at the other end. As United's stuttering start to the season continued, this made it a solitary win  penalty shootouts excluded  from six games. An unprofitable opening month hardly harmed them 12 months ago, of course, and it may not again, yet there was a lack of fluency and flair for too long. Their own choices contributed. Ferguson made six changes in a selection that clearly indicated that Sunday's game at Chelsea is the priority. To borrow a word that is rather in vogue, with was sub-prime United, a game when squad players threatened to outnumber the automatic choices. It would have smacked of complacency, except that Villarreal appeared to have adopted the same policy. Their sprinkling of Euro 2008 winners were divided between the pitch and the bench, though Santi Cazorla seemed fit enough to play the second-half. A seven-a-side game between the two benches would have been well worth watching, but patches of the first half between the chosen teams were not. The non-aggression pact between Ferguson and Pellegrini lasted an hour before Franco struck the post and Ronaldo entered proceedings. Nevertheless, demoting Anderson to the bench, plus Nemanja Vidic and Wes Brown, was a debateable move. Weakened teams proved themselves capable of progressing in both the Champions League and the Premier League last season. Then, however, Ronaldo tended to be the insurance policy, the man who bailed them out on a regular basis and, at times, rendered the identity of his 10 team-mates of secondary importance. Without Ronaldo, the first hour provided soporific fare. Park claimed a penalty, but a midfield combination of the South Korean, Owen Hargreaves, Darren Fletcher and Nani arguably represented the reserve quartet, with the former duo short of sharpness on their first starts of the season. This was Manchester United lite, the version that should be saved for those lucrative but irrelevant tours. Yet after a Champions League record of 12 successive home wins, they were halted by the last team to escape defeat here in Europe. In some respects, Villarreal are the antithesis of United. With the capacity of Old Trafford around 50% larger than the population of the Spanish town, they have bucked the trend for the biggest and wealthiest to dominate. It was a night for the underdogs. When Ronaldo is around, there are few of them. MAN OF THE MATCH: Gonzalo Rodriguez  Partly for the goal-line clearance and partly for an excellent defensive display in which Joan Capdevila also caught the eye. MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: They head to Chelsea as underdogs. If Evans was rarely tested as Vidic's deputy, the midfield was a disappointment. Hargreaves is not yet at his fittest and Anderson provided much-needed spark upon his arrival. That said, Ronaldo was the only real bonus. It is rare United are lacklustre in three successive games, but they have been. VILLARREAL VERDICT: It may not have been the most ambitious performance, but it was certainly an accomplished one. While United had the majority of the chances, they merited their draw. Had the excellent Cazorla started, they may have taken more than one point.


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