When Real Madrid host Manchester United at the Bernabeu in ten days' time, all eyes will be on Cristiano Ronaldo. Max Liu, who was at Old Trafford to see the young Portuguese make his United debut a decade ago, asks whether Ronaldo has become a better player since leaving the Reds.
"With a staggering 133 goals in 122 appearances, Ronaldo is even more important to Madrid than he was to United."
Few players flourish after leaving Manchester United. Lee Sharpe, Dwight Yorke and Ruud van Nistelrooy's careers entered their epilogues after they were deemed superfluous to Fergie's requirements. Diego Forlan, Jaap Stam and, arguably, David Beckham enjoyed decent spells after Old Trafford, but they didn't choose to leave. Youngsters who fail to make the M16 grade exude the irrelevance of ex-mobsters who have entered witness protection and they drop down the divisions. Anyone seen Luke Chadwick's recent performances for MK Dons?
Cristiano Ronaldo, who hopes to end his old club's Champions League aspirations when Real Madrid play the Reds at the Bernabéu next week, is the exception. He spent at least two of his six seasons at United agitating for a move. But has he gone on to greater things?
Ronaldo was signed by United for £12.24 million in 2003 after Ferguson declined to guarantee that a helicopter would be available to transport Ronaldinho - his preferred replacement for Beckham - to midweek nights out in Europe's capitals. With a peroxide streak in his hair, and a curious habit of tying his training top above his belly button like a 1990s teenage girl, Ronaldo established himself as a singular talent. In an opening day victory, he bamboozled Bolton's defenders and delighted the Stretford End with lightning step-overs. Old Trafford had a new hero but that performance - high on dazzle, low on product - typified Ronaldo's first three seasons in England.
He scored 84 goals in 121 appearances but half of those came in the 2007/08 campaign. Between 2003 and 2006, fans bemoaned his inconsistency and, after Ronaldo helped to get Wayne Rooney sent off at the 2006 World Cup, the Portuguese looked certain to leave. Most fans would have said good riddance but Ferguson was determined to keep him. That was a masterstroke. Three consecutive Premier League titles followed and Ronaldo was United's star when they won the 2008 Champions League and reached the final again the following season.
With a staggering 133 goals in 122 appearances, Ronaldo is even more important to Madrid than he was to United. He hit his third hat-trick of the season in last Sunday's 4-0 win over Getafe, but was guilty of an astonishing miss in the midweek cup match against Barcelona and ineffective in Saturday night's defeat to Granada in a performance that typified the Spanish champions' current frustrations.
Madrid are third in La Liga, 15 points behind Barcelona. You could argue that United are as reliant on Robin van Persie as Los Blancos are on Ronaldo but the Reds are flying in the Premier League and the Dutchman is more ably supported by Wayne Rooney than the Portuguese is by Higuain. If Ronaldo doesn't score, Madrid won't win.
Has he achieved bigger things at Madrid? His individual performances are incredible - 53 goals last season, 30 already this term - but, while he won three Premier League titles and a Champions League in his final three seasons at Old Trafford, he's claimed only one La Liga winners medal, a Copa del Rey and a Supercopa de España at the Bernabéu.
If Ronaldo destroys United's defence, Sir Alex Ferguson, who rates him the best player in the world, probably won't be surprised. However, the manager also knows there's some validity to the suspicion that his former charge goes missing in big games and, at 2.486/4, the Reds look value to qualify.
Ronaldo's shocking El Clásico Miss
Ronaldo's brilliant goals for United and Real