Manchester United’s players have grown all too familiar with the cruelty of penalties over the last year.
United lost on penalties in Gdansk, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho failed to convert at Wembley and Anthony Elanga was the latest youngster to be overcome by numbness at Old Trafford on Friday night. The defeat was far from Elanga’s fault, but that was lost on the 19-year-old. He looked distraught after the final whistle. Elanga couldn’t have felt more alone in front of 70,000 people.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. It wasn’t part of the script. There was an audacious lofted chip from Sancho than cannoned off the bar, Ronaldo sent his penalty wide in the first half and Bruno Fernandes squandered a golden opportunity. The result should have been put beyond doubt, but United failed to take their chances. That proved costly when Middlesbrough won the penalty shootout.
Elanga was the unfortunate player to miss his penalty. He has been brilliant since his introduction to the first team by Ralf Rangnick and this was the first ‘blemish’ on his record. It feels wrong to even call it a blemish. The youngster should never have been in that position. The number of internationals on the pitch for United should have been enough for the Reds’ chance to have been taken.
Yet the chances were squandered and United are out of the FA Cup. They remain in the Champions League but you’d get long odds from any bookmaker on United winning that trophy. They are set to match the club’s longest trophy drought for 40 years.
The weight of that burden fell cruelly and unfairly on Elanga’s shoulders on Friday night. The Swede was immediately consoled by Phil Jones, Fred and Harry Maguire after his penalty miss. Bruno Fernandes, Juan Mata, Rangnick and Hannibal then arrived.
Elanga’s teammates attempted to drown out the Middlesbrough celebrations with support in the youngster’s ear.
Ronaldo then escorted him to the tunnel. Ronaldo placed his arm around Elanga and walked him to the dressing room. The cameras clearly showed Ronaldo pointing to himself, with the forward saying it was his own fault. It was a classy moment.
There were vast numbers of people who wanted Ronaldo to fail at Old Trafford after his return to United this summer. They haven’t got what they wanted. Ronaldo has been in prolific form – scoring 14 goals in 25 appearances – and he’s found the back of the net in multiple pivotal moments when United needed inspiration. They would be out of the Champions League without him.
The criticism of Ronaldo has continued despite his impressive goal haul. Some pundits have accused him of being a bad influence in the dressing room, however, the truth could not be further from that statement. Ronaldo has held it together this season.
When the writing was on the wall for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Ronaldo asked for desire in the dressing room. When Rangnick wasn’t happy with body language on the pitch, Ronaldo spoke like a club captain in interviews. When Elanga failed to convert his penalty against Middlesbrough, Ronaldo was there to console him. He was there to place the burden on his own shoulders.
Ronaldo understands what being Manchester United means. While he will be disappointed in the drop of standards since he last played for the club, he’s single-handedly preventing them from slipping further. Ronaldo isn’t the problem this season.
It’s Ronaldo’s birthday this weekend but it’s hard to imagine him fully celebrating. Could you say that about anyone else in United’s squad? Ronaldo is a serial winner and the defeat to Middlesbrough would have hurt him as much as anyone.
The narrative pushed by some pundits that Ronaldo is a negative influence is absurd and simply wide of the mark.
Ronaldo will continue to help United’s youngsters for as long as he remains at the club.