It’s almost incomprehensible that Cristiano Ronaldo will be spending his Tuesday and Wednesday nights sitting at home, like the rest of us mere mortals, watching next season’s Champions League.
The Portuguese frontman is instead preparing to clear his Thursday night schedule as Manchester United ready themselves for their first jaunt into European football’s secondary competition (if they’re lucky) for the first time since… well, last season. However, United’s talisman may yet harbor hopes of adding a 2022-23 Champions League winners’ medal to his mantlepiece.
United’s supposed ‘title tilt’ quickly descended into an embarrassing failure to secure a top-four finish, with doubt now cast upon Ronaldo’s Old Trafford future. The announcement that Erik ten Hag will take the reins from Ralf Rangnick at the end of the season has at least given fans some optimism, though there’s every possibility that Ronaldo could see the Dutchman’s impending rebuild as his cue to leave.
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After all, as one of the most decorated footballers in history heads into the final few years of his career, why would he want to spend them without Champions League football as part of a team struggling to implement the framework for future success? It’s a fair question and one that Ten Hag needs to answer.
One of the aspects of the Ajax boss’ career that no doubt attracted United to him in the first place was his impressive track record for nurturing players. Such a statement automatically makes you think of managers helping youngsters grow, but Ten Hag’s ability to steer the likes of Sebastien Haller and Dusan Tadic — already familiar names to Premier League fans but players who had perhaps lost their way slightly — back on track, is second to none.
Development has played a key role in his managerial career to date, and he’ll now be tasked with developing one of the biggest football clubs in the world. There are no foundations at United. They need to start again.
While fans would be perfectly entitled to suggest Ronaldo would want no such part in such a plan, Ten Hag now has the chance to convince the United striker of the pleasure he could take from helping the club take their first steps on the road to recovery. Ronaldo could quite easily leave Old Trafford and bid to claim a sixth Champions League crown, but he could also be remembered as the man who spearheaded the club’s charge back towards Europe’s elite competition.
Success isn’t going to come easy for United, that much is clear. The goal for next season will be to begin the project that can hopefully see the halcyon days return.
A domestic cup, or perhaps a decent run in Europe, may well be the closest they come to silverware next term — a far cry from the trophy-laden years Ronaldo has become accustomed to. But in years to come, he may be able to look back on the blank spot on his CV from 2022-23 as one of the most satisfying campaigns of his career.
Convincing him isn’t going to be easy, but no manager in world football is better placed to do so than Ten Hag.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.