Thursday 29 September 2016

James Lawton: Rafa driving Ronaldo back into the arms of Manchester United

Published 31/07/2015 | 02:30

Rafael Benitez is keeping a watchful eye on Cristiano Ronaldo
Rafael Benitez is keeping a watchful eye on Cristiano Ronaldo

The Cristiano Ronaldo-Manchester United plot, far from being over, may well be thickening as relentlessly - and as Jose Mourinho in his current mood might observe - as Rafa Benitez's waist-line.

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Certainly it is difficult to believe that United, so lavish in their summer buying, will accept defeat on the basis of Real Madrid's reported evaluation of £80m - £4.5m more than United exacted when their superhero moved to the Bernabeu seven years ago.

It's true that, at 30, Ronaldo may now be required to look back on some of the best of his Ballon D'Or years but what he has left, apart from superb physical condition and a fierce pride in both his work and his image, is the opportunity to make a hero's return unparalleled in the most romantic annals of the game.

And what he still offers to United - hell-bent on the most expensive re-construction under Louis van Gaal - is so much more than mere dalliance with a more glorious past.

Indeed, when you take the merest glimpse at current market values - and consider, for example, the unformed Raheem Sterling product neighbours Manchester City have spent £49m on - the greater the inclination to see a hard United move for Ronaldo as a mega-deal in waiting.

If you still believe you can win back your old place as football's most compelling brand, if you are riding the riches of the Premier League on top of your own worldwide earning potential, why would you not scrawl out the cheque that restores to you one of the most luminous figures in a great football tradition?

It is not just that their Premier League fourth place was, in the end, no more than a toe-hold on their old place among the elite of European football.

Not only do they have to develop sharply in this new campaign if they are to compete seriously with champions Chelsea, City and financially buoyant Arsenal on the home front, they have to regain some of that old branded mystique.

That suffered a little glancing damage with defeat by a new rival in the global market, Paris Saint-Germain, in Chicago this week, but the argument for Ronaldo's return runs far deeper than the ups and downs of summer grandstanding in the big markets.

United need the kind of unique quality which Ronaldo would bring to the core of Van Gaal's impressive effort to rebuild the competitive values laid down so brilliantly by Alex Ferguson.

Van Gaal has been pursuing players of proven mettle all summer.

In Bastian Schweinsteiger he has landed a fighter and a leader he first identified back at Bayern Munich more than a decade ago.

He has acquired a full-back of the highest technical quality in Italian Matteo Darmian.

In polished French midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin, the manager has been at pains to point to the highest standards of professional commitment.

Reports suggest that Rafa Benitez is incapable of effectively nurturing the ego of his club’s most celebrated possession.
Reports suggest that Rafa Benitez is incapable of effectively nurturing the ego of his club’s most celebrated possession.

When he considers his new Dutch protégé Memphis Depay he speaks of a player imbued with the highest ambition.

When they are all put together alongside the residual talent of Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata, Van Gaal can murmur convincingly, if often eccentrically, about the extent of his work in progress.

But then Ronaldo is the dimension which is filled with the potential for instant acceleration.

Ronaldo would bring back an aura that was building dramatically when he left for Madrid in the wake of United's third European Cup triumph in 2008 in Moscow. Then, he was still seen as the wilful, narcissistic young super-talent with a largely undeveloped sense of team.

When the media clamoured to know his plans after the triumph over Chelsea in Moscow, he declared: "I have my own thoughts and my ambitions but at the moment I'm not telling anyone - not even my mother."

For the moment, Ronaldo's vision of the rest of his career remains somewhat clouded, but should it be that United again becomes part of his life, the possibility is of huge irony.

It lies in the widespread belief that Real's new manager Rafa Benitez is simply incapable of effectively nurturing the ego of his club's most celebrated possession.

Already there are reports of friction between the coach who insists on religious compliance with his vision of how a team should operate and a player who has come to believe that he is in charge of his own destiny the moment he goes out on the field.

Benitez, who delivers minute tactical instructions, has been known to stop training sessions when a player has strayed even by half a yard from the masterplan, and his presence on the touchline is frequently abrasive - and schoolmasterly.

It is not the kind of chemistry which Benitez's more urbane and relaxed predecessor Carlo Ancelotti developed at a time when Real regained the Champions League trophy and saw Ronaldo surpass Lionel Messi in the Ballon D'Or voting.

Ancelloti has a way of cultivating his key players. At Chelsea he described Didier Drogba as his "superman" and he lavished praise on Ronaldo.

Said the Italian: "Ronaldo has become the heart and the expression of the team. It is simple, when he plays well we play well - and anything is possible."

The irony is that, if Benitez's stronger belief in the prevailing wisdom of the coach does indeed deepen the rift between him and Ronaldo, the greatest beneficiary could well be the club he was so desperate to better in his days with Liverpool.

For Benitez, nothing, not even his 2005 Champions League triumph in Istanbul, softened the edge of his rivalry with Ferguson's Manchester United.

He railed against the advantages he believed they received from the authorities, and the referees, as they tightened their hold at the top of the English game. Now, it could just be that he helps to deliver to them an old edge in their attempts to restore their position.

This week Mourinho, riled at the claims of Benitez's wife that her husband had been required to clean up the mess he had left at three clubs, hit back with an unflattering reference to his rival's physique - and the charge that in fact Benitez had destroyed Mourinho's Champions League-winning work at Inter Milan.

It was a heavy indictment but it will pale, not least in Madrid, soon enough if Ronaldo is seen to have been driven back into the arms of Manchester United.

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