By Greg Stobart
As the balls swirled in the pot at the Champions League last 16 draw in December, nobody wanted to see Real Madrid drawn against Manchester United more than Cristiano Ronaldo.
It is the most glamorous tie of the round and one that reunites Ronaldo with the club where he reached iconic status during six years at Old Trafford after joining for £12.3 million as a spotty teenager in 2003.
Ronaldo never fell out of love with United when he decided to accept an £80m transfer to the Spanish capital in 2009 - he simply could not resist the temptation of a move to the Santiago Bernabeu.
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“Yes Manchester was a very good cycle for me,” said the 28-year-old in an interview ahead of the Wednesday’s first leg in Madrid.
“I won everything there. It was a fantastic part of my life there.
“And maybe it was the time I enjoyed my football the most because I was so young.
“To be at Manchester United — one of the biggest clubs in the world — at just 18. It was a dream!
“And to play alongside those players you had only seen before on television — maybe that’s why I feel I enjoyed it there the most.”
Home in a mental sense, but also partly in a physical one too with Ronaldo still owning the £3.5m mansion in Alderly Edge he resided in for the majority of his Old Trafford career. He attempted to sell the property upon his switch to Madrid but many potential suitors were put off by the opulent, personalised stained glass windows and the omnipresent No.7 which could be found everywhere, including the bottom of his swimming pool.
Having failed to sell the property, which had been rented by England international Adam Johnson during his time at Manchester City, Ronaldo the landlord plans to take several of his Real Madrid team-mates on a tour of his lavish former home when he returns to Manchester next week.
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Often derided for a brashness that borders on arrogance, Ronaldo still maintains an appreciation of the simpler things in life. Often he would resist the bright lights of the Manchester club scene and opt for a meal on his own at an intimate Portuguese restaurant in Bridge Street, just outside the town centre, that served his favourite bacalao dish, a salted cod recipe, his mother used to cook for him during his childhood.
Certainly his bond with the city of Manchester remains strong, but so too does his relationship with those players he enjoyed almost unparralled success with.
Indeed, some of those players remain his closest friends, with both Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand revealing recently that they still regularly exchange text messages with their former team-mate. Those messages have dried up in recent weeks as the players focus on the game but expect warm embraces when they come head to head this week.
Even on Tuesday night, less than 24 hours before one of the biggest games of his career, Ronaldo let his near 16 million strong Twitter following know how much he was looking forward to seeing his old partner in crime Wayne Rooney again.
Similarly, Ronaldo has maintained a close relationship with United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who he credits as the father-figure both in his development as a person and a footballer.
Sir Alex used that relationship and his masterful man-management to get the best out of the flying winger, with the pair betting against each other each year on how many goals Ronaldo would score. After losing the wager in the first two years of his United career, Ronaldo never looked back.
In many ways, Ronaldo still goes to Sir Alex for the security and support that is missing at Real Madrid, where the supporters have been strangely slow to take him to their hearts and he has spoken of his ‘sadness’ at the club.
That stems from a belief that he has not been fully backed - either by the hierarchy, fans or his team-mates - and he has certainly not been indulged to the same extent as, say, Lionel Messi at Barcelona.
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Sir Alex and Ronaldo still speak regularly by phone and text message and the Scot believes Ronaldo will commit his future to Real Madrid, feeling it would take ‘hundreds of millions’ to re-sign the Sporting Lisbon academy graduate.
United would certainly be at the front of the queue should Ronaldo ever become available again - and the suggestion is that the player would welcome a return to Old Trafford in the future. Given the club’s £350m debts that appears near-impossible, but United would explore every avenue were it to become a genuine possibility.
United’s rivals Manchester City and Qatari-backed Paris Saint-Germain have been monitoring Ronaldo’s situation and could afford to make him the highest paid player in the world on eye-watering sums worth in excess of £400,000-a-week.
Yet Ronaldo insists any decisions on his future will not be based on money but on following his heart - just as he did in taking the decision to swap Manchester for Madrid in the first place.
Ronaldo still considers himself a United fan, watching his old team-mates and former manager regularly on television as they march towards the Premier League title.
He will not show them any mercy when the whistle blows on Wednesday - but Ronaldo has never cut his United ties after winning nine trophies during his time in Manchester. He may reflect in the next few weeks that there is no better place to play football than at Old Trafford.
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