They say Old Trafford is the Theater of Dreams, which is why when Cristiano Ronaldo turned up last September, pulled on a red shirt and promptly scored twice, Manchester United fans might’ve thought they were still sleeping.
But just like dreams, there would come a moment in which it would all seem too good to be true.
The fans would certainly wake up to see the confused, messy reality in which both Manchester United and Ronaldo now exist.
After just one season back, Ronaldo wants out of the club. United wants him to stay. Neither can be sure about what happens next.
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Of course, some could see the mess coming all along. After all, Ronaldo’s so-called homecoming didn’t make a great deal of football sense at the time, even if it did emotionally, and financially.
After a staggering nine-consecutive Scudetti, Juventus slipped to fourth in the 2020-21 Serie A season, and was again eliminated from the Champions League in the Round of 16, with Ronaldo its biggest star.
Ronaldo was supposed to deliver the Bianconeri back to the Champions League promised land but, ultimately, his on-field demands were hard to accommodate, and those made off-the-field held the club hostage with little financial wriggle room to make improvements elsewhere.
Juventus had to move on.
For an initial fee of 15 million euros, Manchester United offered a hand and thus inherent the same issues by signing one of its most iconic players for a second time.
The club wasn’t only blinded by nostalgia and the financial windfall Ronaldo could bring — $A60m worth of kits were reportedly sold within 12 hours of being released — but also by the threat of bitter rivals Manchester City.
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Pep Guardiola’s side was said to be on the verge of signing Ronaldo in what would have been a dagger to the heart of United fans. Motivated by the loss of Sergio Aguero and the failed attempt at signing Harry Kane, City reportedly agreed personal terms with Ronaldo, but wasn’t willing to pay Juventus a transfer fee.
Hours after City’s interest cooled, United was announcing that it had hastily snapped up Ronaldo, 12 years after he left for Real Madrid.
Ronaldo then scored twice in a 4-1 win against Newcastle United that marked his Old Trafford return. He scored at home again the following week against West Ham as United took 13 points from its first five matches of the Premier League season.
What happened next was a disastrous turn that cost manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer his job, and began the poisoning of Ronaldo’s relationship with the club that adored him.
United won just one of its next eight league games, with Ronaldo only scoring once, eviscerating any dream of the Portuguese striker spearheading a long-awaited title run.
Meanwhile, United topped its Champions League group, but only with an unhealthy reliance on Ronaldo who repeatedly rescued the team late in games.
Ronaldo scored after the 75th minute four goals which were directly responsible for saving a total of seven of the club’s 11 points.
It’s not a stretch to say that without Ronaldo’s goals, United would have certainly been eliminated in the group stage.
This over-reliance stretched across competitions with United failing to improve as a team, even if Ronaldo was once again starring.
If there was any genuine football reason to bring Ronaldo on-board, it was to not just be an ever-present goal threat, but to inspire his teammates and spark a new generation of United greatness.
Instead, it took less than one full season for Ronaldo to realize that while he can still regularly tap into levels of greatness, seemingly reserved for himself and Lionel Messi, the rest of the team is a hefty ball-and-chain he cannot carry.
Ronaldo has not sparked inspiration, but rather a dependency that has made him grow weary.
For that, Ronaldo has copped the blame — particularly given his growing reluctance to defend at a time that England’s premier clubs, City and Liverpool, are renowned for their relentless 11-man efforts across the park.
Former interim boss Ralf Rangnick noted Ronaldo’s lack of defending when discussing why his trademark gegenpress didn’t come to fruition at United.
“Cristiano Ronaldo, and I’m not blaming him at all, he did great in those games, but he’s not a pressing monster,” Rangnick said.
“He’s not a player, even when he was a young player, who was crying, shouting ‘hooray, the other team has got the ball, where can we win balls?’
“The same with quite a few other players so we had to make some compromises at one stage, maybe we made a few too many – that’s also possible.”
Former Liverpool winger John Barnes also noted Ronaldo’s increasingly agitated state on the field as a major issue.
“When the ball does not come to him, he throws his hands up in the air,” Barnes told The Mirror earlier this month. “That’s a great example, isn’t it? The harmony at Manchester United is a problem and who causes that disharmony?
“He walks around as though ‘It’s the rest of them, I’m doing my job’. That’s not what a leader does, that’s what someone who does it for himself does. The fans love him and when things do not go his way, he’s like, ‘it’s not my fault.’
“That is not what a team is all about. So we know Ronaldo has done well for himself but would you rather have no one scoring 20 goals a season and United finishing higher up? I think they would be higher up if they had a better team.”
That situation has only grown worse with Ronaldo handing in a transfer request, while he missed United’s pre-season tour of Thailand and Australia on compassionate leave.
Whether he stays for the remainder of his two-year contract now hinges on crisis talks with new manager Erik ten Hag, who he met on Tuesday for the first time since asking to leave.
Ten Hag has insisted that Ronaldo is not for sale. He will do what he can to make Ronaldo happy, but his powers do not include the promise of Champions League football, which the 37-year-old craves, partly owing to his eternal rivalry with Paris Saint-Germain’s Messi.
So focused is Ronaldo on the Champions League that he is reportedly willing to take a 30 per cent pay cut to join a competitor.
Some might accuse the star of being shortsighted instead of targeting a return to the competition with the Red Devils, and exercising an option for a third year in Manchester.
That said, Ronaldo scored 18 league goals in 30 appearances last season and his side still finished a distance sixth, 13 points adrift of Tottenham in the final Champions League qualification spot.
In a footballing sense, it can’t be easy to be Ronaldo. A goal every second game is considered below production, while he’s blamed for poor team results even if he’s performing.
Meanwhile, he’s been forced to watch the club’s football department shoot itself in the foot with lackluster signings and managerial instability.
Winger Jadon Sancho was brought on-board for an eye-watering $A135 million and scored just three goals with three assists in 29 appearances. Center back Raphael Varane was meant to shore up a leaky backline but only managed the same amount of games across all competitions.
Then, despite United’s season going pear-shaped well before January, the club was inactive in the mid-season transfer market. Even now, ten Hag’s biggest moves have been to bring in his former Ajax center back Lisandro Martinez for A$98.7m, and to gamble on Christian Eriksen, who has played only a handful of games since suffering an on-field heart attack 13 months ago .
There’s also the revolving door of managers, which last season ended with an interim arrangement for Rangnick, who was meant to stay on in a consultancy role.
In the end, Rangnick swiftly lost the dressing room with his preferred style of play incompatible with Ronaldo as a linchpin.
It’s not only school kids that are prone to giving the substitute teacher a hard time — Rangnick faced an uphill battle with such a clearly-defined expiration date on his leadership. He’s since departed Old Trafford, while it remains to be seen if Ronaldo will follow him out of the door.
If he does, it will be a sad moment that takes some of the gloss off of his United legacy.
Ronaldo’s first spell at Manchester United was short, but sweet. He scored 118 goals in a 292-game stay that included three Premier League titles, one Champions League, and the 2008 Ballon d’Or.
Two more Premier League titles in 2010-11 and 2012-13 came for United, but the club has generally been in a state of decline since Ronaldo’s 2009 departure, thus growing his status as a club legend.
Now it feels as if there’s everything to lose, and nothing to gain.
Few expect United — sixth-placed last season — to suddenly catapult itself into the title discussion with Manchester City in a class of its own, and Liverpool its only realistic challenger.
The battle for the remaining two Champions League positions will be hotly contested: Chelsea has been freed from the shackles of government sanctions since Russian owner Roman Abramovich managed to offload the club to American Todd Boehly. Meanwhile, Arsenal has splashed the cash, namely on league champions Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko, and Tottenham have added the likes of Richarlison to its already-potent attacking force.
Perhaps Ronaldo has seen the writing on the wall, which is why he wants out.
Complicating his situation further is his colossal £500,000-a-week (A$866k) contract, which serves as a major deterrent to potential buyers.
The majority of Europe’s heavyweights are already committed to their own mega stars, while heavily-linked Atletico Madrid distanced itself from Ronaldo on Tuesday night.
“I don’t know who invented this story about Cristiano Ronaldo to Atletico Madrid,” Atletico president Enrique Cerezo said. “It’s not true. It’s practically impossible for him to come to Atletico Madrid.”
Nonetheless, United is reportedly open to a one-year loan deal for Ronaldo, should the striker take the option of a third year in Manchester.
That route could provide a fairy tale ending yet, but this is a chapter of Ronaldo’s career that arguably should never have been written.