Jurgen Klopp did not seem devastated by Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United when the issue came up a month ago.
“When I heard the rumors,” he said. ‘I thought,’ Oh, that will be fun for United. All very well. Free world. They can do whatever they want. ‘ Managers, least of all Klopp, are rarely so humorous when they perceive a real threat.
Ronaldo has inflicted damage on Liverpool for Real Madrid during those 12 years away, but the Premier League he returns to is a more ruthless and inflexible place. Klopp knows.
Cristiano Ronaldo is under scrutiny at Old Trafford despite his goalscoring return to United
Even in the early years of the new millennium, Liverpool felt they had the measure of him in a Manchester United jersey. The numbers say something. He scored just three goals in 12 appearances in the six years of that first period. The story of Stephen Warnock’s fight with him on United’s right flank at Anfield 16 years ago reveals more.
It seems hard to believe now, but Warnock felt genuine optimism as he looked into the whites of Ronaldo’s eyes and prepared to go head-to-head with him in September 2005.
The rising superstar, in his third season at United, was already enough of a threat for Rafa Benitez to warn his defenders about him in his team talk.
Jurgen Klopp did not sound devastated by Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United when the issue came up a month ago.
“Don’t dive in, let him make the decisions,” Benítez said at lunchtime. But Warnock was encouraged by knowing precisely how the 20-year-old intended to try to beat him.
“I knew I wanted to go one-on-one,” he says. That was the most important thing to me. I knew he wanted to haggle, to face me. He was going to do a few steps and tricks, but his decision making and completion weren’t what they ultimately became. So there was no process of questioning it later.
Even then, Ronaldo represented something extremely unusual: attacking on the outside, with his stronger right foot, or on the inside, with his left.
Even the best young English wingers Warnock had faced, like Aaron Lennon, tended only to take one route.
“He didn’t mind losing the ball, either,” Warnock recalls. It didn’t bother him. He had this confidence to get the ball back and lose it again. But he always preferred to go down the outside with his right foot and my left foot was my tackle foot, so I had to back up my biggest strength.
They also always told me that the best defenders force the attacker to make the decisions. Errors come from panic. Be calm.’
Ronaldo brings his A game against Liverpool, but has changed his game since his Madrid days
Warnock was. A report from that match, a 0-0 draw, proclaims that his leadership of Ronaldo is “as impressive as any other left-back in the Premiership except Ashley Cole.”
He received his first summons from England a few days later.
It was the template for how Liverpool would often deal with Ronaldo for much of his first six-year stint at United.
Benítez, Liverpool’s coach for much of that time, frequently chose Brazilian Fabio Aurelio on the left back to face Ronaldo. He provided the same lucid approach as Warnock.
“He liked Ronaldo’s challenge,” says a friend of Aurelio’s. Anticipation was always part of Fabio’s game. He felt he had Ronaldo’s measure. Yes, Fabio felt like he knew what was coming and how to deal with it. ‘
Their contest at an Old Trafford game in March 2009, a 4-1 win for Benitez’s team, proves the point.
Ronaldo ran to Aurelio half a dozen times that afternoon, but the tape of the match shows the Brazilian blocking with either foot, his eyes fixed relentlessly on the ball. Never dive.
Significantly, Ronaldo did not pressure Aurelio, who subsequently always seemed to have several meters to operate inside. Growing in confidence, the Brazilian threw a ball over Ronaldo’s head with his heel. Later he scored a direct free kick.
“Rafa did not have a particular strategy to deal with him,” says one of Benítez’s co-directors at the time. Wayne Rooney was in his prime then. He was the one who was always desperate to cause us trouble.
Even Phil Thompson didn’t see Ronaldo become the player he is now. It was he who went looking for him for coach Gerard Houllier, in a season-ending match for Sporting Lisbon against rival Porto in 2003.
Liverpool was one of several clubs that Ronaldo was offered to for £ 4 million at the time.
The Porto players were barely sober. They had just beaten Celtic to win the UEFA Cup in Seville and had been celebrating since Wednesday. Some players’ hair was still dyed blue in club colors, Thompson recalls. But Ronaldo’s Sporting lost 2-0.
“Ronaldo had a quiet game, he didn’t do much,” says Thompson. “But obviously he was an exceptional talent, even at 18 years old. Would you have guessed that he would score as many goals as he has? I doubt it. But then we did not know what we know now.
Thompson and Houllier were definitely interested. But just days after Thompson returned to Liverpool, Ronaldo had been sold to United for 12 million pounds, three times the asking price.
Though it now looks like the heist of the 20th century, the Ronaldo playing Liverpool on Sunday is a more complicated part of the United equation than the first time around.
Not only is he last in the pile of players based on the applied press metric, he is very much adrift.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s renewal was celebrated by fans but poses a problem for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
And the hierarchy is in turmoil. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is not exactly his superior.
However, Ronaldo is more likely than any other United player to intervene to win the game. No one will be blinded by the data.
Warnock recounts how, three years after Old Trafford’s game with Liverpool, he faced Ronaldo at Ewood Park while playing for Blackburn.
“I was back on the right wing and it gave me a three-year lead from the midline,” says Warnock.
Actually, I was pretty fast as a player. But it just flew past me. In those few years, his running power and acceleration had changed a lot.
‘I just remember thinking,’ How the hell did it get so much faster? ‘
United won 2-0 and Warnock was surprised to see Ronaldo that night, outside the Gaucho bar in Alderley Edge, Cheshire, as he arrived for the launch of teammate Brad Friedel’s new book.
“He came over and offered to get me a beer,” Warnock said. He said, “That was a good fight today. I really liked it. “And I think it’s him, essentially.
He likes the contest. He really wants the challenge.
I have not forgotten that gesture. I’ve always respected him for that. ‘