It was the hottest ticket in town for some time and Cristiano Ronaldo was never going to disappoint. It is rare that one individual transcends a match but that is how it was at Old Trafford from the moment Manchester United’s returning icon first stepped out to warm up, sparking roars that could be heard half a mile from the ground.
Back to where he belongs to reprise a never ending love story (Ronaldo’s words); back in the “magic” No 7 shirt (his again), the 36-year-old Portuguese had delighted the capacity crowd with a poacher’s finish on the stroke of half-time. But the best was yet to come.
United were on their heels after Javier Manquillo’s equaliser for Newcastle and it had been a rather disjointed performance from them up to that point. Ronaldo, though, sliced through to leave nobody in any doubt as to where the points were heading, or, indeed, the headlines.
Luke Shaw’s pass asked him to accelerate in between two black and white shirts and the manner in which he did so made a mockery of his years. Once in front of Isaac Hayden, the Newcastle defender was never going to catch him and Ronaldo duly rammed his shot under the goalkeeper, Freddie Woodman. It was quick and clinical. Cue that celebration. Again. The photographers had the image they wanted.
Old Trafford basked in the feelgood factor and gilded the scoreline late on with further goals from Bruno Fernandes and the substitute Jesse Lingard. For Newcastle, there was only frustration because, until Ronaldo’s second, they had been in the contest. Sadly for Steve Bruce, there were more chants from the travelling fans against him. The difference could be found in United’s ruthlessness, with one man leading the way. That boy Ronaldo is back.
Twelve years on from his last United appearance, the warmth of the welcome for Ronaldo was almost overwhelming. He was always going to start, despite having played only twice this season – one of them as a substitute – and the atmosphere crackled, euphoria mixing with the sentiment.
At the outset all eyes were on Ronaldo, who played in a No 9 role with license to peel wide – even those of the United players. When he burst inside the area in the early exchanges, having executed a stepover, there was nothing on for him in the middle. He lashed into the side-netting from an unfavourable angle.
There were a few scuffs from Ronaldo, including a complete miskick on an attempted volley, which drew a rueful smile, and the thought occurred that United had better start linking as a team. The Ronaldo show appeared to threaten the wider one, even if it was difficult to disentangle the two.
Bruce wanted his starting 5-4-1 system to yield nothing and it irked most of those present to see Woodman killing time on a goal-kick as early as the 21st minute. Ole Gunnar Solskjær tapped his watch and huffed.
United were sloppy in the first half, some of their passing lacking accuracy. They laboured to unpick Newcastle and, if the visitors had been able to show greater composure on their forward thrusts, they might have been able create something. Their best moment before the interval followed a United lapse, Fernandes losing the ball to Joe Willock following Shaw’s loose throw-in. Willock’s finish was wild. Sean Longstaff also nearly got in only to be snuffed out by Harry Maguire.
United did not manage much before Ronaldo’s first goal. There was a Raphaël Varane header from Shaw’s corner that flashed wide, a break that finished with Jadon Sancho’s shot being blocked and a dangerous cross from Fernandes that went all the way through.
The breakthrough was not one that Woodman will enjoy watching back. He spilled a Mason Greenwood shot at Ronaldo’s feet, although there was a slight deflection off Ciaran Clark. Ronaldo had moved in anticipation of the error; Newcastle’s defenders did not. Up went the home support, which included Avram Glazer, the owner, who was in attendance for the first time in more than two years.
The goal did not spark United. Instead it was Newcastle who fought back, stunning Old Trafford with the equaliser. It was created by the quicksilver Miguel Almirón, who slipped a challenge and then beat Maguire before switching the ball to the right. Allan Saint-Maximin played in the overlapping Manquillo, who drove past David De Gea.
What would United come up with by way of a response? Ronaldo’s answer was emphatic. Joelinton did work De Gea thereafter but United turned the screw when Fernandes picked out the top corner with no Newcastle pressure on the ball.
Lingard’s goal followed a Paul Pogba pass and a dummy from another substitute, Anthony Martial. Lingard’s quick feet were matched by the precision of the finish. It was his first United goal since August of last year having returned from a loan spell at West Ham. There was only one comeback story here, though.