Gavan Reilly asks if the Red Devils can survive losing their Galactico.
WHEN MANCHESTER UNITED finally succumbed to Cristiano Ronaldo’s voracious wanderlust – and happily accepted a cheque for £80m – many would have expected the Red Devils’ stranglehold on the Premier League to come to a mute and subdued end. With no side ever having claimed England’s top flight for four successive years, and having stuttered to a third straight Premiership last May, the loss of the talismanic winger – so often the goalscorer in 1-0 wins – seemed the death knell to United’s title ambitions.
United’s initiation to the new term, though, seems to offer some sunlight to the red faithful. Barring the notable blip against newly-promoted Burnley – who, to their credit, have flourished under Owen Coyle and look a safe bet to survive the drop – United have exhibited a footballing renaissance of sorts; playing a gritty, commanding, physically resolute game, juxtaposing the shapely, trim, luxurious football of the Ronaldo era.
The contrast in styles Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have demonstrated can be embodied in their chief playmakers of each era. The deluxe football achieved at the pinnacle of Ronaldo’s tenure – a 7-1 drubbing of Roma in 2007 springs to mind – can almost be seen as an extension of Ronaldo’s own play. In the Portuguese’s absence, United’s creative lynchpin has been rescued from a wider berth and restored to his ideal position, bearing down in front of goal: a player embodying United’s new aggression like no other, the gristly Wayne Rooney.
United’s real ability to survive Ronaldo’s departure, however, will likely come in the Champions League. The Red Devils’ opener tonight against Beşiktaş will offer the first indication of whether the European stage on which Ronaldo performed his best can succumb to the hardier style Rooney’s United have adopted, or whether the stage is set for United’s meek exit and a stylish success for Ronaldo and the rest of Florentino Pérez’s neuvos Galacticos at Real Madrid.
While United seem incapable of repeating the svelte performances Ronaldo so often seemed to propel, the signs for the Old Trafford faithful are strong so far. Victories against fluent Arsenal and Tottenham sides might not be the final rung on the ladder to further success, but they may certainly be the foundations on which United’s throne could be built.