It has been nearly five years since the last time Cristiano Ronaldo faced his former team, eliminating Manchester United in the round of 16 in the Champions League with a goal at Old Trafford for Real Madrid.
Though the only thing at stake in Tuesday’s Group H clash in England is first place, interests of the football world and emotions for a newly minted Juventus version of Ronaldo are running high ahead of just his second contest at Old Trafford since leaving for the Bernabeu nearly a decade ago.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Ronaldo contributed to United’s prestige in his six seasons with Manchester United, winning three Premier League titles and the 2008 Champions League trophy while rising to superstardom. But at Real Madrid, that superstardom became all-encompassing and omnipresent as he helped Los Blancos to two La Liga titles and four Champions League titles — including the last three.
His first season with Juventus has gotten off to a fairly strong start, though this will be just his second Champions League contest with the Bianconeri. Ronaldo was given a red card in Juve’s opening victory for apparently pulling the hair of Valencia defender Jeison Murillo last month and missed their 3-0 victory over Young Boys earlier this month. It was the first Champions League red card in 154 matches for Ronaldo, who has the all-time scoring mark in Europe’s top club competition with 120 goals.
“It is special for me to return to Manchester,” Ronaldo said at Monday’s news conference. “Here I have many memories of victories and affection, and in particular with Sir Alex Ferguson, to whom I send a big hug. He is a person who helped me so much.”
While some of the talk has been about Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford, much of the news conference was dominated by an allegation of rape in the summer of 2009 while in the United States. The story came back into the spotlight a month ago following an investigative article by the German newspaper Der Spiegel, and while Ronaldo did not directly address the allegations, he also struck a tone of defiance that implies he has been able to compartmentalize what takes place on the pitch and off it.
“We did the statement two weeks ago, if I’m not wrong,” Ronaldo said when pressed about the issue. “I am glad [about how it progresses]. Of course, I’m not going to lie in this situation, I’m very happy. My lawyers, they are confident and of course I am, too. The most important is I enjoy the football, I enjoy my life. The rest, I have people who take care of my life. Of course, the truth is always coming in the first position [eventually]. So, I’m good.”
It is hard to argue with him based on his recent performances for Juventus. The Portugal international has five goals and three assists in his last six Serie A matches and scored in Juve’s 1-1 tie versus Genoa on Saturday that marked the first time in nine matches they dropped points (8-1-0). The Bianconeri are the only unbeaten team in Serie A and are four points clear of Napoli through nine matches as they seek an eighth consecutive scudetto.
While Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic have taken care of the offence by scoring 13 of Juve’s 24 goals, Juve will be without centre-forward Mandzukic, who sprained his ankle in training and did not make the trip. Douglas Costa appears to be the most likely candidate to lead the line, though the Brasil international’s last Champions League goal came with Manchester United in the 2016-17 season.
Juve’s defence, meanwhile, have been their usual stingy selves, conceding just six goals in 11 matches across all competitions. That is even with the changing of the guard between the sticks from warhorse Gianluigi Buffon to Wojceich Szczesny, who has five clean sheets.
The Poland international has plenty of experience facing Manchester United from his days as the No. 1 with Arsenal, but he has not experienced too much success. Szczesny is 2-2-5 with two shutouts against United, but it also should be noted that eight of the 15 goals he has conceded in those matches came in an 8-2 drubbing at Old Trafford in 2011.
Dybala was held out of the starting XI versus Genoa to nurse a knee injury, making a 20-minute cameo late, but had a hat trick in Juve’s win over Young Boys. The only other player in Juve’s regular rotation to not make the trip was midfielder Emre Can, who has been recovering from a thyroid problem.
Manchester United are still trying to find themselves, but some of the fight that has been lacking from the England powerhouse was on display in a 2-2 draw versus Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Always a charged atmosphere when manager Jose Mourinho returns to his former stomping grounds where he won three Premier League titles, United nearly escaped London with three points before a goal at the death by Ross Barkley relegated them to splitting them.
Anthony Martial accounted for both goals with a second-half brace, but it was the forward play of United in the second half that generated optimism for this contest. In some ways, it was similar to their 3-2 win over Newcastle United prior to the international break in which they overcame a two-goal deficit in the final 20 minutes, but that fight needs to be present for all 90 minutes as opposed to just fits and spurts.
“I think the first half we just started slow,” United striker Romelu Lukaku said at Monday’s news conference. “No initiative on the ball and no movement. But then in the second half we did everything we said we wanted to do in the first half. We do it always in the second half and that’s why we come back to get great results. But now the key is to start games how we start them in the second half, and maintain it as much as we can.”
United’s win over Newcastle is their only one over the last six matches in all competitions (1-4-1), but they have more clean sheets in Champions League play (2) than domestically (1). Mourinho has injury concerns as wingers Alexis Sanchez and Jesse Lingard have been ruled out of this match along with midfielders Marouane Fellaini and Scott McTominay.
The lack of bodies forced Mourinho to use a 4-2-3-1 formation against Chelsea, something that could be replicated in this match with Juan Mata as the more forward playmaker and Pogba as a holding one alongside Nemanja Matic.
Per Ladbrokes, Juventus are 29/20 favourites to leave Old Trafford with all three points and a stranglehold on the group. United are 2/1 underdogs to claim a victory and the group lead ahead of the return engagement in Turin, and the odds of the teams splitting the points and leaving Juve ahead on goal difference halfway through group play are 21/10.
Despite Juve being listed as favourites, the match result with the lowest odds is a low-scoring draw at 11/4. A Juventus win over 2.5 goals has 10/3 odds, while one under 2.5 goals is 19/5. Manchester United posting a win with more than 2.5 goals checks in at 19/4, while a low-scoring victory for the hosts is slightly longer at 9/2.
Ronaldo is the oddsmakers’ favourite to score the first goal of the match in his return to Old Trafford at 4/1, followed by Dybala (5/1). Lukaku rounds out the top three while serving as United’s top option (11/2), with Marcus Rashford and Fernando Bernardeschi completing the top five at 13/2. Despite his brace at Chelsea, Martial has substantially long odds to make it 1-0 for the hosts at 8/1, which is behind the game ending without a goal-scorer (7/1) and teammate Alexis Sanchez and Juve’s Douglas Costa (15/2).
Ronaldo and Dybala also lead the line to score at any point in the match at 6/4 and 19/10 odds, respectively, while Lukaku is a 2/1 pick to run counter to his flat-track bully reputation and score for United. Rashford is a 5/2 choice to score while both Martial and Sanchez have 14/5 odds. On Juve’s side, Costa weighs in at 11/4, slightly behind Bernardeschi at 12/5.
Based on United’s last two results and how they got there, the question of whether they can put together a complete 90 minutes remains the biggest issue facing them. If they play with the verve and nous of the second half they played against Chelsea, this could be a rollicking affair versus Ronaldo and Juventus. With the likelihood of Antonio Valencia at right back, though, there is a bit of a nod to defence with the realisation it will be a group effort to contain Ronaldo on the left.
It remains to be seen just how much of an impact Mandzukic’s absence makes considering he is second on Juve with three assists. The Croatia international is the grit between the smooth operators Ronaldo and Dybala, though the latter may not be 100 percent for this match. That means most of the playmaking duties will fall to midfielder Miralem Pjanic, who is plenty capable of the role considering he has two assists in Champions League play and four overall.
While Martial is in excellent form for United, Lukaku could very well be the difference between zero points and any for Mourinho’s side. The Belgium international has not scored in his last seven matches for the club and all four of his markers have come in league play. He will be going up against the well-seasoned tandem of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini in central defence for Juve, which means it could be a long, frustrating night for Lukaku.
in the end, though, it always comes down to Ronaldo. United have no real good options at right back between Valencia and Ashley Young when it comes to containing Ronaldo’s pace, which means Matic and Chris Smalling must be cognizant of where the superstar is at all times, especially when he makes his darting runs into space since his straight-line speed must be respected.
If second-half United decide to play from the opening whistle, they should emerge with no worse than a draw. But expecting that to happen is pure speculation, and Juventus right now appear to be in too good a form to be slowed down at the moment.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester United 0, Juventus 2.
OTHER CHAMPIONS LEAGUE MATCH DAY 3 PREVIEWS:
Shakhtar Donetsk (0-2-0) vs. Manchester City (1-0-1)
PSV Eindhoven (0-0-2) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (0-0-2)
Liverpool (1-0-1) vs. Red Star Belgrade (0-1-1)