There was a time when Old Trafford would lap up these nights. Manchester United v Juventus: it was more than just a football match, it was an occasion. Except those were the days when the players in red could hold their own against the most accomplished opponents. The days when it felt like anything was achievable and the European Cup was an obsession for the man staring out from the home dugout.
It feels very different now. This defeat was another demonstration of how far England’s biggest club have dropped away in the post-Ferguson years and, ultimately, the side now managed by José Mourinho came up so short it must have been a chastening experience for the supporters who remember better times.
It was a night that provided compelling evidence that, for the modern United, it is a long way back. They survived a mauling from Cristiano Ronaldo – even if he did set up the goal – but the story of this match was of one team who are very much a work in progress and another set of players who give the impression they are completely in tune with one another.
Juventus spread their feathers, peacock-style, in the first half. They assumed control with a goal from Paulo Dybala, the game’s outstanding performer, and got away with some carelessness in the second half because, frankly, United’s front men are good players – sometimes excellent – but not the kind of elite footballers who will unduly trouble Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci et al on the big nights.
Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford and a few others found out the hard way and, in the process, United discovered why Juventus had begun the season with 10 successive victories. Massimiliano Allegri’s side arrived with a four-point lead at the top of Serie A, on course presumably to win their eighth Italian title in a row, and the seen-it-all-before expression that you might expect from a club that regards their record in the European Cup, as two-times winners yet seven-times beaten finalists, an affront. Juve looked, in short, a cut above. And then, of course, they had a player wearing the No 7 shirt like a fashion statement, with a blur of orange in his boots and the look on his face, as always, that he fancied himself as the nearest thing in football to The Fonz.
On the previous occasion Ronaldo came back to Old Trafford it was with Real Madrid in 2013 and Sir Alex Ferguson, always scheming, had the idea for the public announcer to change the order in which the players’ names were read out. Ronaldo was ushered in last as “the magnificent No 7” because Ferguson wanted to crank up the pressure on his former player just before kick-off.
For a while, it looked like a brilliant ploy and Ronaldo did struggle uncharacteristically with the weight of expectation. Until, that is, he scored the goal that dumped United out of the competition and signalled Ferguson’s final involvement in the Champions League.
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