A heightened demand for greatness
The moment Cristiano Ronaldo took his first touch on his second debut for Manchester United on Saturday, 12 years and 118 days since making his last appearance for the club, the 'Viva Ronaldo' chants around Old Trafford broke out. They have not quite subsided since, not in the minds of fans who were left dreaming of possibilities after their golden boy found the back of the net twice to inspire a 4-1 win over Newcastle.
The players took note of the atmosphere and took every chance to get Ronaldo the ball and the Portuguese was in no mood to disappoint, scoring at both ends of the field on either side of Newcastle's only goal. But the game had not been easy. Newcastle deployed exactly the kind of low block that had frustrated Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men time and again, especially when chief creator Bruno Fernandes is off-key.
Ronaldo brought with him the promise of breaking down any team, but outdid even his relentless self with a brace, remarking after the match: "Unbelievable. I didn't expect two goals. I only expected one. It was an incredible welcome that the crowd gave me. They sang my name all game, so I was very nervous. But I belong to this club so I want to help the team achieve great things."
The 36-year-old returned to Manchester last Tuesday and on the eve of Saturday's game, reminded the team at the first pre-match dinner that he would not sing an initiation song because he had completed the ritual 18 years ago when he first signed for the team. He then addressed the team, telling them that while they had been doing well, it was time to up their levels and compete for silverware.
That demand has been taken seriously around the club, unlike at Juventus, where a managerial merry-go-round meant even his 101 goals in three seasons and two Serie A player of the year distinctions did not yield a Champions League trophy or fail to avert the Old Lady's capitulation in defence of a tenth straight Serie A title last season.
But there is greater resistance in England as well. European champions Chelsea and Pep Guardiola's Manchester City are favourites in the title race but United can take confidence from already finding themselves top of the table despite summer signings Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane not quite finding their feet.
Their adaptation to the Premier League will be a welcome boost as will the return of fan-favourite Marcus Rashford, who has not featured in the squad even once this season. Solskjaer's squad for his first full season in 19/20 was the youngest United had featured in a decade and the rewards for that are also becoming apparent, with 19-year-old forward Mason Greenwood already scoring thrice in four league games this season, adding to the 30 he grabbed across competitions over the past two seasons, and has developed into a real threat on the right.
But while the Ronaldo-factor has brought belief to every Manchester United fan, a major concern that was not dealt with was the glaring need for a midfielder. Despite having one of the best attacks and with what should be one of the best defences once Varane settles alongside Harry Maguire, right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka and left-back Luke Shaw, United's ultimate challenge in contending for any silverware this season will be compensating for their shortcomings in midfield. That will require them to not just up their levels, but ensure that those levels do not drop off at any point during the grueling season.
United have all the ingredients, including record-breaking form away from home. All they need now is some luck, especially in terms of injuries, to mark Ronaldo's return to Old Trafford by ending the club's seven-year wait for a 21st top division title.