They had come to celebrate Cristiano Ronaldo and they got what they had come for: not one, but two opportunities to shout “Si!” as he celebrated goals with that characteristic spread of the arms and thrust of the groin, a sort of macho version of Lionel Blair indicating he’s miming the title of a song. Everything else, for the moment, could take a back seat: the king has returned.
The announcement of Ronaldo’s name when the teams were read out at around 2.25pm was greeted by a great roar. When he jogged out to warm up, cleverly maximising his exposure by positioning himself behind Donny van de Beek, a player of translucent appearance and reputation, there was another visceral cheer. He responded with practised casualness, acknowledging the two long sides of the ground with applause and a raised thumb. Before kick-off, Ronaldo was last out of the tunnel, so the roar had grown and grown before he emerged behind Paul Pogba.
The noise at kick-off was extraordinary, far louder than for any league game at Old Trafford in recent memory, certainly for a routine game against lower mid-table opposition. Social media engagements, presumably, were through the roof. Even the executive co-chairman Avram Glazer, after a two-year hiatus, turned up to see it.
Yet there is an oddity about this, a weird sense of gratitude that Ronaldo, having apparently been quite willing to join Manchester City, decided to return. A self-confident club, perhaps, might not have such a need to reinvoke past glories.
In the directors’ box, Ed Woodward looked out, doubtless congratulating himself on a job well done. Any questions about why United have gone eight seasons without a league title despite spending half a billion pounds net over the past five years can be deferred for another few months, deflected by the same nostalgic wishful thinking that dilutes criticism of Ole Gunnar Solskjær even though he is the longest-serving United manager not to win a trophy since Dave Sexton.
This was a day without doubt. This was a day for adoration. Ronaldo strutted among his people and they responded with passionate intensity. This is modern fandom; tribal, unblinking, incapable of treating their heroes with anything but awed reverence.
Other than a banner drawn behind a plane, there were no awkward questions here about exactly what happened that night in Las Vegas 12 years ago, though Ronaldo denies all the accusations.
Nor were there quibbles about the wisdom of paying a 36-year-old £500,000 a week when there apparently wasn’t money available to bolster a midfield that looks increasingly shabby beside the glitz elsewhere in the squad. Might this hamper the development of Mason Greenwood? Might Ronaldo’s presence impede the creativity of Bruno Fernandes, who has been so vital to United recently but with whom there has been no evidence he can play with Portugal? Might his reluctance to press expose that threadbare midfield against better sides?
Ronaldo was good. Or rather, he was good at the things he is good at. He was alert to the opportunity as Freddie Woodman, confounded by a slight deflection, spilled Mason Greenwood’s shot in first-half injury time. There was a majesty in the way he slowed then swept by Isaac Hayden before slamming his second through Woodman’s legs. He remains a goalscorer of the highest calibre.
But United’s problem last season was not scoring goals. They were the second-highest scorers in the Premier League and somehow went out of the Champions League despite getting 15 in the group. Their problem was the clunkiness of the midfield, the lack of coherence that meant they could be thwarted by solid if unspectacular teams – Crystal Palace, West Brom, Sheffield United, Villarreal …
There were alarming signs in the first half that Ronaldo might exacerbate that problem. It’s early days and relationships may develop, but when, for instance, he burst into the left of the box after 20 minutes and slammed a shot into the side netting from a narrow angle, there was nobody in the centre for a cross: Greenwood, Jadon Sancho and Fernandes were essentially standing back and watching.
And if Ronaldo’s arrival and the need to accommodate the stars means Pogba playing more games at the back of midfield, United are extremely vulnerable to the counter. Newcastle levelled through a breakaway and a more composed side might easily have had a couple more.
But this was not a day for concerns. It was a day to revel in thoughts of glories past and, United fans hope, perhaps even believe, glories future. It’s hard, though, to see how Ronaldo solves the most pressing concern, the element of the side that has been preventing United mounting a title challenge: the organisation of the midfield.