Sir Alex Ferguson has forgiven Cristiano Ronaldo, will Manchester United's fans? That is the sub-plot to tonight's already intriguing opening fixture in United's defence of the Champions League.
Having been rebuffed in his summer-long attempt to force a move to Real Madrid Ronaldo, said Ferguson, has knuckled down to life at Old Trafford. Indeed, so dedicated has he been to training that he is in line for a recall against Villarreal tonight, two weeks ahead of schedule after his ankle operation.
Ronaldo will, said Ferguson, "certainly be involved", probably, he added, as a substitute. The reception the Portuguese receives if and when he comes on will be closely observed. Will it be cheers, jeers, or studied indifference?
Ferguson has no worries. "He said he would like to go to Real Madrid [but] when I had the meeting with him [in Portugal] that was it, finished. He understood my position and the club's position and he's got on with it. He's accepted it like a professional and there's not been one problem since.
"I don't think he has to win the fans over. I think they understand he's a young man who's been tempted by the lure of money, but since we gave him our decision he has accepted it well and his training has been absolutely fantastic. He's probably been one of the best patients I've ever seen. He's been in every day right through until five o'clock and he's had a real determination to get back to playing for us. He's well ahead of schedule and that's credit to him.
"There are no issues at all regarding Cristiano. He's shown a fantastic maturity in the past few weeks, accepting the situation and getting on with it. There has been no pettiness and no throwing the toys out of the pram."
In reality the reception will probably depend on how United are faring at the time. Three seasons ago they were held to goalless draws home and away by Villarreal in the group stages and if United are struggling to score again Ronaldo will probably be warmly welcomed. Without him the champions have looked noticeably blunter in attack this season and, United having lost at Anfield on Saturday, Ronaldo's return is timely.
"Even if we had won on Saturday it would still be a lift because we are talking about a truly magnificent player," added Ferguson. "He is a massive player for us," added Carlos Tevez. "It's like having an extra player when he is there. He is such a danger to our opponents."
The return of Ronaldo, who scored 42 goals last season, compensates for the loss of Michael Carrick who will be out at least a month after breaking a bone in his foot at Anfield. United may also have to do without Dimitar Berbatov who injured his knee on Saturday and, said Ferguson, is "very doubtful". "There is swelling," added Ferguson. "We are working on him but there may not be enough time."
United are already without Paul Scholes, who is suspended having been dismissed in the Uefa Super Cup tie against Zenit St Petersburg last month, but Wes Brown and Patrice Evra are expected to overcome a knee injury, and sickness, respectively to play.
Villarreal are without Nihat, the Turkish striker, and former United forward Giuseppe Rossi, who both have thigh problems, but should still not be under-rated. They reached the semi-finals in 2006, being knocked out by Arsenal, and were runners-up to Real Madrid in Spain last season. Three of their players, Marcos Senna, Joan Capdevila and Santi Carzorla played influential roles in Spain's Euro 2008 triumph and their growing strength as a club was illustrated when Carzorla rejected a transfer deadline move to Real Madrid. Robert Pires, who has been injured, is likely to be on the bench alongside Jozy Altidore, the 18-year-old who became the most expensive American player when he signed for £5m this summer.
No team has retained the European Cup since it mutated into the Champions League but Ferguson said: "I really do think we've got a great chance [of doing it]." Ferguson cited the range of options, and depth of squad he has as the main reason for his confidence, but holding on to Ronaldo may prove as significant a factor as any.
Manchester United (probable): Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Fletcher, Anderson, Hargreaves, Nani; Rooney; Tevez.
Villarreal (probable): Lopez; Venta, Rodriguez, Godin, Capdevila; Cazorla, Senna, Eguren, Ibagaza; Franco, Llorente.
Referee: W Stark (Germany).
Villarreal's player to watch
Villarreal's captain and midfielder is a great passer of the ball and has an excellent long-range shot. He has scored once this season and played a key role in Spain's Euro 2008 triumph.Reuse content