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(BBC SPORT) Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice on his return to Manchester United as the hosts eventually cruised to victory against Newcastle United and delighted a packed Old Trafford.
Cheered from the moment he left the team coach on its arrival at the ground, throughout the warm-up and then once the game had started, Ronaldo repaid the backing in the best possible manner.
Twelve years after he last scored for Manchester United in this stadium, Ronaldo broke the deadlock in first-half added time when he tapped in after visiting keeper Freddie Woodman spilled Mason Greenwood’s shot.
Then, after Javier Manquillo had levelled with his first Newcastle goal, Ronaldo finished off a flowing move by racing on to Luke Shaw’s through ball and drilling a low shot through Woodman’s legs.
His international team-mate Bruno Fernandes rifled in the goal of the game as he collected Paul Pogba’s square pass and curled a shot into the top corner from the edge of the area before substitute Jesse Lingard added a fourth in added time.
The margin of victory was harsh on Steve Bruce’s men, who played well for long periods. But Newcastle’s efforts were irrelevant to the ecstatic home fans, who had the added bonus of their side returning to the top of the Premier League.
Significant day at Old Trafford
You only had to look in the directors’ box to understand this was a special day for the hosts.
Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, who has not been seen since the Super League debacle, and co-chairman Avram Glazer, who was making his first Old Trafford visit in two years, were both present.
Glazer and Woodward both played central roles in Ronaldo’s return to the club from Juventus.
However, Sir Alex Ferguson was arguably even more significant in the move, ringing the Portuguese to implore him to return to the club where he is still feted as a hero, rather than accept an offer from Manchester City.
Ronaldo proved he still has much to offer at the age of 36, and that the efforts to entice him back to the club were worthwhile.
His opener showed the value of anticipation, as he followed Greenwood’s shot in when the Newcastle defenders hesitated.
The second emphasised that Ronaldo retains enough speed to cause problems for defences as he charged clear to take his overall Manchester United tally to 120.
Although he has never previously operated as a striker in the conventional sense, that is where he started – and largely he stayed there. He did drop deeper at times, but generally was the most advanced Manchester United player.
At times, that did mean the hosts searched for wider crossing positions more often than a team with such gifted technical players would prefer. But the ends justified the means on this occasion.
There was, however, to be no repeat of the hat-trick he scored on his last appearance against Newcastle at Old Trafford in January 2008.
Nevertheless, with Fernandes delivering the kind of goal that has earned him hero status at the club and Lingard giving a reminder of the ability he showed on loan at West Ham, it was a victory that went beyond the contribution of a single individual – even if Ronaldo’s name will dominate the aftermath.
Newcastle hope extinguished
Ronaldo’s momentous goal must have felt like a kick in the guts for former Old Trafford captain Bruce.
Newcastle’s record at the ground is terrible and the build-up to this game pitched them in the role of spoilsports, trying to wreck a party that had been building up all week.
Through a combination of disciplined defending, what could be kindly described as ‘time management’ – which irritated the home fans immensely – and incisive counter-attacks, Newcastle were excellent.
Allan Saint-Maximin, Sean Longstaff and Joe Willock all got themselves in a position to threaten David de Gea’s goal without managing to beat the home keeper.
Ronaldo’s goal with the half time break beckoning ruined all that good work, and it was so preventable too.
Isaac Hayden was standing next to the Portuguese when Greenwood took aim but, unlike Ronaldo, he didn’t gamble on the outcome and was not in position to challenge when Woodman made his mistake.
To their credit, Newcastle renewed their efforts after half-time and for a brief time after they had capitalised on a Harry Maguire error to convert a superb counter-attack – which ended with Saint-Maximin prodding a ball through for Manquillo’s second goal in English football – a second Old Trafford win since 1972 seemed possible.
That hope evaporated as Ronaldo returned to centre stage, leaving the visiting fans to renew their chants demanding change at the top of their club.