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Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo's return - snubbed by Europe's elite, benched by Manchester United, but now it could all change for CR7

4:59 PM SGT 8/9/22
Cristiano Ronaldo
How the Europa League could change the narrative around the Portuguese legend

The competition Cristiano Ronaldo was so desperate to avoid, could now provide the springboard he craves. The Europa League tie with Real Sociedad on Thursday could see the Portuguese forward start for the first time since Manchester United’s 4-0 humiliation at the hands of Brentford.

He didn’t want to be here at this point - and even late in the transfer window it was not certain where Ronaldo would be playing his football this season.

He wanted to continue playing in the Champions League to further embellish his record in club football’s sternest test. United could not provide that - and the idea of hanging around to see if they could claw their way back into it this season did not appeal.

What Ronaldo did not bank on was the lack of a market for a 37-year-old earning in excess of £500,000-a-week and seemingly out of step with the modern, high-pressing game favoured by elite clubs.

And so, in a week when he has had to watch on as Europe’s finest began their Champions League journeys, he will step out at Old Trafford in what will feel like a parallel universe. Continental competition - just without the unmistakable anthem that has been the soundtrack to so many of his greatest achievements.

The question now is - with the window closed and his fate sealed until January at the earliest - what does the future hold for Ronaldo?

  • Change of narrative

    There has been a notable change in his body language since he furiously marched off the pitch at Brentford, gesticulating after turning away from the travelling supporters and appearing to not even acknowledge Erik ten Hag on the touchline.

    He has since put his immense social media following to good use with messages of positivity about United and their recent upturn in form.

    There was a “very special thank you” to supporters after the 3-1 win against Arsenal.

    Later her posted a picture of himself signing autographs along with the message #alwaystogether.

    That’s the beauty of having 478million followers on Instagram - you have the power to write your own narrative, which makes it all the more telling that he chose not to clarify his position earlier in the summer when news emerged of his desire to leave.

  • Cristiano Ronaldo Manchester United 2022-23

    On the pitch

    On Sunday, he was among the first to his feet to celebrate Antony’s debut goal - but more notable were his actions when coming on as a substitute just before the hour.

    There he was, chasing down Arsenal shirts in deep positions, trying to force errors and jostle them out of possession.

    Ever since Ten Hag’s arrival, the debate has been whether Ronaldo can press and be part of the Dutchman’s high-tempo system. Here was evidence that he is prepared to try.

  • Faith

    Ten Hag has insisted all along that great players adapt - and has been convinced Ronaldo can operate at the point of his attack.

    Ahead of Sociedad, he was abrupt when questioned as to whether Ronaldo could be a regular fixture in United’s starting XI - even at his age.

    “Of course,” was the simple reply.

  • Cristiano Ronaldo Marcus Rashford Manchester United 2022-23

    Fitness

    But United’s manager will need to prove that.

    He insisted on Wednesday that Ronaldo had been fit enough to start since that game against Brentford on August 13. Yet he is still waiting to be named on the team sheet - even in the absence of the injured Anthony Martial.

    Instead Marcus Rashford has been deployed in his less-favoured role through the middle, where his energy levels - and goals - have been key to the turnaround in the United’s form with four straight wins.

  • Ten Hag Ronaldo 2022-23

    Power

    Ten Hag has established his power - proved that he is not afraid to drop United’s biggest star, just as he was prepared to axe his captain in Harry Maguire.

    But if he is going to make it work with Ronaldo, he will have to end his exile sooner, rather than later.

    Benching him against the backdrop of the transfer window and a lack of pre-season, is one thing. Forcing him to be a bit part while still expecting him to get onboard with a new regime, is a recipe for disaster.

  • He needs a goal

    Ronaldo’s remarkable feats have been achieved because of his refusal to accept the limitations of mere mortals. But even he can do little when consigned to the side lines.

    It’s notable that in five substitute appearances this season, he is yet to find the back of the net. He has not gone so long without a goal at the start of a campaign since 2004-5, when it took him until the 19th game to score his first for United that season.

  • Erik ten Hag

    Ten Hag's next move

    What could be perceived as a successful power play by Ten Hag, could blow up in his face Ronaldo becomes disenfranchised.

    It feels unlikely United's new manager would make such a mistake. He has played his hand wisely over the summer - publicly declaring his desire to work with the Portugal international and repeatedly offering assurances he is in his plans.

    At Carrington they have spoken repeatedly, with Ten Hag laying out his vision for Ronaldo and what he needs from him.

    But that will sound empty if the player cannot get meaningful time on the pitch - and that doesn’t mean being rolled out on Thursday nights, which would feel like some sort of cruel penance for his aversion to the Europa League.

  • Springboard

    But it does represent a potential springboard for someone who is desperate for lift-off.

    Ronaldo has never been the type to suffer from issues of confidence, but there is a sense he needs a big moment.

    His substitute appearances have felt like curiosities. Until his cameo against Arsenal, he has looked short of fitness. Even then - the pressing aside - his few efforts on goal have been snatched at. As if he is trying too hard to impress.

    He needs a run of games and tangible evidence he can add something to a forward line that now has Antony to set it alight.

  • Todd Boehly 2022

    The Chelsea question

    With the window shut and United resurgent, he has until the World Cup to concentrate solely on his game.

    But it would be naive to think the question of his future will go away - especially if he rolls back the clock in Qatar.

    Events at Chelsea, in particular, are fascinating.

    Thomas Tuchel was the obstacle to his proposed move to Stamford Bridge, with co-owner, Todd Boehly, very keen to make him a marquee signing of his first window in charge.

    Should Chelsea recover from defeat to Dinamo Zagreb and qualify for the knockout stages, it would represent the chance for Ronaldo to get back into the Champions League at the midway point.

    Should he fail to convince Ten Hag he can fit into his system - and United continue to prosper without him - then there could be less resistance to his departure in January.

  • Ronaldo-Man-Utd-2022-23

    Rejuvenated

    But the preference is for him to play a pivotal role in a season that shows much more promise than it did after two games.

    Ronaldo cannot fail to be impressed by United’s eventual recruitment - being rejoined with former Real Madrid teammate, Casemiro, while another Bernabeu great, Raphael Varane, looks rejuvenated.

    Ten Hag’s handling of the France defender - including a pre-season programme to improve his condition and decisiveness in dropping Maguire - has been key to his outstanding performances in recent weeks.

    The former Ajax manager has remained confident he could have a positive impact on Ronaldo, too, as both his “teacher and friend.”

    It requires buy-in from a player who has won it all - but is desperate to win even more.