Cristiano Ronaldo used to have people shaking their head in disbelief at what he did on the football pitch, but it is a sign of the Manchester United forward’s diminishing status that he is now only having that effect for what he does and says off it.
As he prepares to fly to Qatar for his fifth World Cup with Portugal, Ronaldo has done and said everything he can to ensure that he won’t be going back to Old Trafford and the Premier League when the tournament finishes. The problem for Ronaldo is that, to get the move he wants, he now has to let his football do the talking in Qatar and his football, to be frank, hasn’t spoken so well in recent months.
Just think about the 37-year-old’s most memorable moments since the end of last season. He failed to report for preseason training on time, citing family reasons, and then missed United’s preseason tour of Thailand and Australia. When he finally returned to the fold, Ronaldo was criticised by manager Erik ten Hag for leaving Old Trafford during the second half of a friendly game against Rayo Vallecano. The Portugal captain then refused to come on as a substitute last month’s Premier League win against Tottenham Hotspur, during which he got up from the bench, walked down the tunnel and left Old Trafford before the final whistle. For that, he was excluded from the squad for the subsequent game at Chelsea.
And now, he has made perhaps his most premeditated display of dissent towards the club to date. Ronaldo has given an interview to Piers Morgan in which he accuses United of “betrayal,” says he does not respect Ten Hag and accuses unnamed figures at Old Trafford for wanting to force him out. For maybe the third time this season, the initial reaction is to believe that Ronaldo has gone too far and that he will have played his last game for United, but on the previous occasions, there has been an uneasy truce and he has pulled on the red shirt again.
For balance, it is only right that Ronaldo’s playing highlights this season are cited to temper the off-field issues. He scored his 700th career club goal from the penalty spot against FC Sheriff in the Europa League and netted another against the Moldovan champions at Old Trafford last month. And he has scored one goal in a 2-1 Premier League win at Everton. So there you have it. Three goals, with two coming in a competition — the Europa League — that he tried so hard in the summer to avoid having to play in. United, meanwhile, are seemingly on the rise again under Ten Hag after a decade of mismanagement at all levels. Of the five games they have lost this season, Ronaldo has started four of them.
The picture that is emerging is inescapable; Ronaldo is no longer having an impact on the pitch and, when he plays, United are producing their worst results. It’s little wonder that Ten Hag is wasting no time in moving forward with Ronaldo nothing more than a bit-part player. As ESPN reported last month, United have been prepared to let Ronaldo leave Old Trafford on a free transfer ever since he made it clear that he wanted to leave in the summer. A United source has since told ESPN: “There is a view that we have kept him hostage, told him he has to stay, but nothing could be further from the truth.”
Back in the summer, there was no interest from other clubs in a player earning £500,000 a week and with his 38th birthday approaching in February. The same remains the case now. Basically, United can’t even give Ronaldo away. Much of that is down to clubs being wary of signing a player whose global status is so great that it gives him a sense of being able to do what he wants. Nobody wants to sign a player who will cause unrest within the squad.
However, if Ronaldo was still the Ronaldo of old — a player capable of scoring 30-plus goals a season and one who makes a difference in the biggest games — clubs would set aside any reservations about his character simply because he would win games and trophies. Ronaldo can’t claim to be that player anymore, but in Qatar he has perhaps his final chance to prove that he can still be that guy.
On the biggest stage, Ronaldo has a chance to silence his critics, prove his doubters wrong and make United and Ten Hag regret their handling of him this season by scoring big goals in big games to drive Portugal deep into the competition. Ronaldo can once again do his talking on the pitch and ensure judgments are made on what he does with his feet rather than his mouth.
But if he was still capable of that, he wouldn’t need to bare his soul in a lengthy televised interview. The reality is that it was a desperate act by a desperate man, trying to find a solution to a problem of his own creation.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s last desperate bid for Man United exit
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