In an atmosphere of leaks, sniping and mistrust, the moment of truth is looming for Manchester United. And Cristiano Ronaldo is where he wants to be, the central figure in the drama.
Ralf Rangnick’s team face Manchester City at the Etihad on Sunday in a derby that is crucial to both sides. Hold on. Let’s rewind. The words ‘Ralf Rangnick’s team’ are so patently a perversion of reality as to be unusable.
Let’s start again. The mismatched squad of players with competing interests who are available to the German manager cannot afford to drop points against their neighbours. United are fourth in the Premier League but for now the table lies. Arsenal – and even Tottenham Hotspur – can leapfrog them if the London clubs win their games in hand.
All the whispers coming out of Old Trafford point to elevated levels of dysfunction. Ronaldo’s unhappiness with the work habits and ethics of the younger players has been made clear. The Portuguese and his allies of him in the dressing-room’s ‘Iberian Group’ are not impressed with some of their English colleagues. Harry Maguire is increasingly becoming the focus of fingerpointing – and not without reason. No one is impressed with Rangnick’s training and management style.
As if that is not bad enough, Richard Arnold, the chief executive, is showing signs of following in the tradition of Ed Woodward, his predecessor. There is no clear strategy at the club. Mauricio Pochettino has been linked with the manager’s job repeatedly but there is no real conviction that the Paris Saint-Germain boss is the right man. The latest name thrown into the mix is Carlo Ancelotti, who is just about the worst fit for a team in this state.
The Italian is one of the finest modern managers but he is a finisher rather than a builder and certainly not a tactician. Sir Alex Ferguson is said to have suggested Ancelotti. If this is true, it is time they stopped listening to the venerable Scot.
Somehow, United must put the chaos behind them as they enter the most crucial phase of the season. After City come Spurs in the league and Atletico Madrid in Europe.
The game at the Etihad on Sunday could be a make-or-break moment. Especially for Ronaldo.
When the 37-year-old decided to leave Juventus for Manchester last summer, the original idea was for him to join City. That never happened for two reasons: United were determined not to let their former hero fall into Pep Guardiola’s hands and Ronaldo was not certain he would play a big enough role in the first team if he was part of a squad as good as City’s.
In the reverse fixture at Old Trafford Ronaldo was a pretty forlorn figure. He had one shot but it was as tame as his performance of him.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner was brought back to United to make a statement that would shake City. It has not worked. If they do have nightmares about him at the Etihad, they wake up with relief when they remember that he went to Old Trafford.
It is possible that Ronaldo will lead United past Atletico and on to an unlikely Champions League final in Paris. Possible but unlikely. He will probably leave in the summer. This fractious campaign looks more like a mistake by club and player with every day that goes by.
The derby offers a chance of redemption. City have not been at their best in their previous two league games – a defeat by Spurs and a narrow victory over Everton – and may be feeling the pressure of Liverpool coming back to their shoulder in the title race. This is a stage set for Ronaldo.
When he was rampaging through the Premier League during his first spell at Old Trafford, the derby was an afterthought for the Red Devils, a local sideshow when compared with the bigger battles against Arsenal and Chelsea. Now, United are the second-raters, not quite inconsequential at the Etihad but heading in that direction.
The return of the Portuguese has not arrested the rot. Perhaps it has contributed to it. Ronaldo can handle the spotlight. He just cannot carry this team.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.