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Champions League

Ronaldo’s back but can Man Utd win the Champions League?

It’s been 12 years and 110 days since Cristiano Ronaldo last played for Manchester United in the Champions League. That day in Rome was his swansong, bringing the curtain down on his first, trophy-laden spell at Old Trafford.

A 2-0 defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League final was not how he wanted to say goodbye and since then Ronaldo and United have been on different paths in this competition.

He went on to win four Champions League titles with Real Madrid – becoming the all-time top scorer in the tournament in the process – but United haven’t added to their haul since the 2008 penalty shootout victory against Chelsea in Moscow.

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United’s recruitment has been strong this summer however and Ronaldo’s arrival in particular has led to bookmakers slashing the odds of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side winning it all this season.

Can they really do it? And will Ronaldo be the catalyst?

Solskjaer has only won four of the 10 Champions League games he has managed, losing the other six, and the capitulation in last season’s group stage was one of the lowest points of the Norwegian’s reign so far.

So, what’s changed?

“We’ve had enough disappointments, that’s for sure,” Solskjaer said on Monday.

“We’ve had some big moments but this team has grown and matured over the last few seasons. That was always the plan. Back in the day when I came in we had a squad with experience and quality to challenge.”

“With players like David [de Gea], Harry [Maguire] has had a couple of years, we’re getting the spine of the team, you can see experience and quality.

“Of course with Raphael [Varane] and Cristiano they add that last… not that last bit, it’s something extra we have to buy unless you win it four times yourself.

“We’ve definitely learnt that the group is special as a unit. They look after each other. The atmosphere is really good and that’s going to stand us in good stead, definitely.”

Ronaldo is a big part of that. One of the main reasons his spell at Juventus was judged ultimately as a failure is due to the expectation when he joined that he was going to deliver their first Champions League trophy since 1996. It never happened.

He won’t be judged by the same standards at United but his presence alone is enough to have some tip the team to get back to the top.

His arrival at Old Trafford has lifted the entire squad. Reserve goalkeeper Lee Grant joked that nobody touched dessert at the team hotel ahead of Ronaldo’s second debut for the club against Newcastle on Saturday as they were following his lead. It was something Solskjaer laughed off in his pre-match press conference before the game against Young Boys today but the sentiment remains.

Ronaldo’s return, it is hoped, will force those around him to up their game. If he plays at the Wankdorf Stadium on Tuesday night in United’s Group F opener he will equal the all-time record for appearances in the competition – matching Iker Casillas on 177 – and he has already scored 134 goals.

Add to that his five Champions League trophies, four Club World Cups, one Super Cup, one European Championship and the Nations League, and you can see he’s got what it takes to lead a team to glory.

That experience, and obviously his goal tally, could be what makes the difference for Solskjaer this season. The 2-1 defeat to Istanbul Basaksehir was an embarrassment in last season’s group stage. Not only was the defending bad but United’s inability to know what it takes to win in the Champions League was exposed.

But with the likes of Ronaldo, Varane and Paul Pogba, Manchester United are building a squad which now has winners in it. It is a completely different side to that which Solskjaer took over in 2018.

With that different look comes higher standards and increased levels of expectation. There can be no excuses for failing to fight among the big guns in this season’s competition.

Group F will not be a walkover but it’s favourable. Young Boys, who sit fourth in the Swiss League, are first up before Villarreal and Atalanta. On paper it is a group they should be able to navigate and for Solskjaer it is imperative that they do.

He has spoken a lot about the progress his team has made and that’s been evident in the Premier League, where they will at least hope to challenge until the end this season.

In Europe it has been a different matter.

They reached the Europa League final last season but for a club the stature of Manchester United they need to be challenging with Europe’s elite and not in the second-tier competition.

As Ronaldo entered the pitch for training on Monday afternoon, last out with Paul Pogba, the cameras were patiently waiting.

The rest of the squad had been out for a while assessing the artificial turf they will play on this evening but the media gaze remained fixated on the tunnel waiting for the prodigal son to appear.

Ronaldo is constantly expected to entertain and deliver, whether in training or in the final of the Champions League itself, and it has never fazed him. He loves the attention but he cannot do it by himself.

He can help take the team to the next level but Solskjaer’s side must show they have grown over the last three years.

A Champions League title would mark a dream return for Ronaldo but it will take more than his signing to inspire United to their first European title since 2008.

“The aim when we go into this tournament now is to go all the way,” the United manager said on Monday. The pressure is on – for Solskjaer especially.

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