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Champions League 2021-22: Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo Looks To Pile More Woes On Atletico Madrid

Cristiano Ronaldo was a part of Real Madrid and Juventus teams that ended Atletico Madrid’s Champions League ambitions five times from 2014 to 2019.

All eyes will be on Cristiano Ronaldo when Manchester United face Atletico in Champions League.
All eyes will be on Cristiano Ronaldo when Manchester United face Atletico in Champions League. AP

No competition makes Cristiano Ronaldo come more alive than the UEFA Champions League. And no team makes Ronaldo come more alive than Atletico Madrid. (More Football News)

So Diego Simeone and his players could be forgiven for feeling a certain amount of trepidation when Ronaldo arrives at the Wanda Metropolitano for Wednesday’s last-16 match between Atletico and Manchester United, despite the Portugal superstar — at 37 — not being quite the force of nature who caused the Spanish club so much pain in the Champions League over the past decade.

From 2014-19, when Ronaldo played for Real Madrid and then Juventus, he was part of teams that ended Atletico’s Champions League title ambitions in five of the six seasons. In the other season, Atletico didn’t make it to the knockout stage.

Ronaldo scored hat-tricks for Real (in 2017) and Juventus (in 2019) against Atletico Madrid, and converted the clinching penalty in the shootout between the Madrid rivals in the 2016 final. Don’t forget, either, his muscle-flexing celebrations after his late penalty in extra time of the 2014 final between the teams that killed off Atletico.

Up until 2020, Simeone had only ever lost in the Champions League knockout stage to a team containing Ronaldo. Oh, and for good measure, Ronaldo grabbed hat tricks against Atlético in the Spanish league in 2012 and 2016.

“He has caused us so much damage in our previous meetings,” Atlético forward Ángel Correa told Spanish sports daily Marca on Tuesday.

Wednesday’s game will be the first time Ronaldo and Atletico have crossed paths since a Champions League game in November 2019, when Simeone said of the then-Juventus striker: “He is No. 1.”

Since then, Ronaldo has pulled clear as the all-time leading scorer in Champions League history with 140 — 15 more than Lionel Messi and 58 more than the next player on the list, Robert Lewandowski. And the fire burns inside Ronaldo as much as ever on Champions League nights.

Goals haven’t been so easy to come by since his return to United last year, with the team enduring a turbulent season that has featured a change of manager. Indeed, Ronaldo has just one goal in his last eight games in all competitions, making it one of his leanest spells since becoming a scoring machine in the latter part of his first spell at United from 2003-09.

Yet, Ronaldo scored in all five group games in which he played, including late winners against Villarreal and Atalanta at home and a stoppage-time equalizer at Atalanta. He lives for the big stage and the big moments, so he’ll relish a return to Madrid to play his favourite opponent.

“Cristiano won this competition many times,” United midfielder Bruno Fernandes said in a video call on Tuesday, “and everyone knows that in this kind of competition he has that smell for goal, that smell for doing different things.”

An injury to fellow striker Edinson Cavani and the continued absence of Mason Greenwood has meant Ronaldo has started in each of United’s last three games, playing 90 minutes in two of them and 85 in the other. United has been careful to avoid over-playing Ronaldo this season, leaving him out of some games.

Starting four games in 12 days isn’t ideal for Ronaldo, even if his sharpness and fitness levels are staggering for a player his age.

Don’t, though, expect him to be out of the team on Wednesday, when Ronaldo and United will come up against a once-vaunted defense — the foundation of Simeone’s success for his decade in charge — that has shown a rare fragility this season.

It has gone from leading the Spanish league in goals conceded — 25 in 38 games in 2020-21 — to letting in 34 goals in 25 rounds so far, a big factor behind its 12 losses this season compared to only eight defeats in all of the last campaign.

Its Spanish league title defense in tatters — the team is 15 points behind first-placed Real — and out of the Copa del Rey, Atlético’s only chance for a trophy this campaign is the Champions League.

The same can be said of United, too, with the title out of reach in the Premier League and Rangnick’s team out of both domestic cup competitions.

“Mentally, we need to be prepared for a very emotional, even hostile atmosphere in the stadium,” Rangnick said about Wednesday’s game. “Some of our players will not be received with a red carpet.”

Especially Ronaldo.

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