They are images that bookend Cristiano Ronaldo’s Manchester United return, from the euphoric high of his Old Trafford reawakening on September 11 to the embarrassing scenes at Goodison on Saturday, when he appeared to smack a phone out of the hand of a 14-year-old boy.
Ronaldo has apologized for his outburst since but there’s no excusing it, no matter how much he was hurting. The 37-year-old was evidently limping towards the away tunnel after another rotten day in United’s season, but his life has been spent not only living in the spotlight but often courting it — he should be used to camera phones by now.
The forward faces a police investigation over the incident and the petulance may well become the defining image of United’s season, although there is plenty of competition for that unwanted award.
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If a season review DVD ever surfaces from United’s latest annus horribilis then it should be on the shelves with the rest of the soap operas rather than among football videos. Everything that could have gone wrong this season, has gone wrong for United, but they’ve been their worst enemy.
It didn’t look like being that way when Ronaldo stepped back out at Old Trafford in September, scoring twice against Newcastle on his second coming. The possibilities seemed endless back then.
Not now. This has been as desperate a season as United have endured in decades and while there will be arguments that Ronaldo is the least of their problems, that doesn’t stop him from being a problem.
Maybe the frustration that bubbled to the surface on Saturday came from the late chance he squandered, firing a shot straight towards Jordan Pickford from 12 yards out. That was his only sight of goal and one of the few occasions you’d even have realized he was on the pitch.
A return of 18 goals from 33 games is reasonable, but below the metronomic standards he has set in recent years with Juventus. There have been just four goals in 13 fixtures for United in 2022 and 11 of those have drawn a blank entirely. It’s not what United expected from one of the best paid players in world football.
The goals aren’t the guarantee they used to be and it looks like Ronaldo is finding the step (back) up from the more sedate pace of La Liga and Serie A to the Premier League a physical challenge. That won’t get any easier next season.
That’s if he is still at the club next season. United are in the market for a younger striker this summer and while Ronaldo has a year remaining on his contract, this is not what he signed up for.
He joined a club that had just finished second in the Premier League and looked to be on the up. It turns out that it was a mirage and the situation now is absolutely desperate.
There is no chance of Ronaldo winning another league title in the time he has left with United. He will turn 38 next February but to stay at Old Trafford he will have to accept a season outside of the Champions League and quite possibly in the Europa Conference League.
That was not in the script at the start of the season. Ronaldo might find he’s short of offers even if he wants to leave, but he will know his time left on the grandest stage is now finite, so accepting a year in a European competition that nobody cares about is unlikely to feature high on his agenda for 2022/23.
Ronaldo laid out his own plans when he returned to the club last summer. “I want to carry on again, to make history, to try to help Manchester United achieve great results, to win trophies and number one of them, to win great things,” he said.
United are making history for all the wrong reasons at the moment and while the Europa Conference League would be a new competition for Ronaldo, nobody is calling it a “great thing” to win. Whether that’s enough to give the leading goalscorer in men’s professional football itchy feet this summer remains to be seen, but if Erik ten Hag decides conditions are to his liking him at Old Trafford then one of his first conversations he might well be with Ronaldo .
Both manager and player will need to be absolutely committed to the union to make it work next season. If there is any doubt on either side it might make sense to cut ties.
United won’t need the distraction of another Ronaldo soap opera heading into next season. Nobody imagined the fairytale would turn into a nightmare as quickly as it has.
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