Four moments that proved Cristiano Ronaldo will once again be a game changer at Manchester United

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Cristiano Ronaldo - Four moments that proved Cristiano Ronaldo will once again be a game changer at Manchester United - GETTY IMAGES
Cristiano Ronaldo - Four moments that proved Cristiano Ronaldo will once again be a game changer at Manchester United - GETTY IMAGES

1. The poacher

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been longing for the arrival of a poacher who is able to sniff out the “ugly” goals that the United manager believes can be one of the differences between winning the Premier League title and not.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s first goal in Saturday’s 4-1 victory over Newcastle United may have been a tap-in but his movement and anticipation in the lead-up to scoring showcased a natural instinctiveness around the six-yard box that Solskjaer’s side have lacked.

Ronaldo was side on, poised to pounce for any potential rebound or ricochet the moment Mason Greenwood shot. But it was not until Ronaldo was about to prod the ball home after goalkeeper Freddie Woodman spilled Greenwood’s shot that the Newcastle defender, Isaac Hayden, who was rooted to the spot, turned and realised the Portugal forward had ghosted in behind him. Ronaldo was the only one of five players, including Jadon Sancho, stood immediately outside the six-yard box who read the moment.

“That was a typical goal where people say, ‘Oh, it was just a tap-in’, but there is more to it than that,” said Solskjaer, who labelled Ronaldo a “notorious” goalscorer. “You have got defenders watching the ball but he’s anticipating that rebound. It was a great goal.”

2. Ronaldo the ruthless

Greenwood averages a goal every 3.4 games for United, even if there is an expectation the 19-year-old will become a prolific scorer in time, Anthony Martial one goal every 3.35 matches, Marcus Rashford a goal every 3.07 appearances and Edinson Cavani one goal every 2.35 games, although the Uruguay striker’s club career average stands at a goal every 1.7 matches.

By contrast, Ronaldo has averaged a goal every 1.32 games for United, Real Madrid and Juventus and, for the past 16 seasons, that average drops to an astonishing 1.13.

When the impressive Luke Shaw released Ronaldo shortly after the hour mark and the 36-year-old hit a top speed of 20.2mph to zoom away from Javier Manquillo and Hayden, there seemed little doubt that, at the very least, he would make the goalkeeper work. Woodman should have done better but Ronaldo underlined the old adage about there always being a chance to score if you hit the target.

Particularly in tight games where opportunities are few and far between this season, Ronaldo’s ruthlessness in front of goal will be invaluable for a team that has been too wasteful in the past.

3. Occupying the defenders

Ronaldo poses such a threat that defenders are naturally drawn to him and Old Trafford was reminded in the first half of how the Portuguese’s intelligent movement should create plenty of space for team-mates this season.

Solskjaer cited Ronaldo drifting to the back post to open up space for Martial and Jesse Lingard to combine for United’s fourth goal. However, the better example was in the 32nd minute when Ronaldo ran across the front of Hayden, who went with him, and in behind Jamaal Lascelles to free up the space for Bruno Fernandes – scorer of a stunning third goal with 10 minutes to go – to find Sancho. In this instance, Fernandes’ pass was hit behind Sancho, which forced the winger to check his run and lose a vital second or two but United will make good chances if Ronaldo keeps attempting those runs.

“When you have got quality players there will be space for others all the time,” Solskjaer said. “So if Cristiano takes the defenders away on a run then that might open the space up for ­others.”

4. Mr Available

Cavani sat out the Newcastle game after suffering a knock in training that is expected to rule him out for at least a week, according to Solskjaer, and force him to miss Tuesday’s Champions League game away to Young Boys and probably the trip to West Ham on Sunday, too. Had United not signed Ronaldo, there would have been a huge onus on Cavani to remain fit and available given that the erratic, inconsistent Martial and a youthful Greenwood, who has little experience of leading the line at first-team level, are the alternatives upfront.

But Cavani, 34, is already proving that his fitness cannot be relied upon in stark contrast to Ronaldo who, despite his age, remains able to play every few days.

Solskjaer said he would not be scared to rest Ronaldo but the United manager knows few players offer such reliability. “He looks after himself so much so I know he will recover quickly,” he said.

“It’s important we get everyone up and running and to get him up and running and to give him 90 minutes. But, no, it’s not impossible to leave him out. He is 36. Mason is 19. It’s the same. I have to manage his minutes so I have to manage a 36-year-old’s minutes as well.”

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