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HERE’S the standard narrative for Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s too old. Age is defeating him. His team-mates are pandering to those slowing twitch fibres and manager Ralf Rangnick can’t go all in on gegenpressing.
The club serves the man. Manchester United are, in effect, Cristiano FC.
In other words, Ronaldo is a problem. A prodigiously gifted, freakishly sculpted, goal-scoring phenomenon and a source of United’s current pain.
And how do you solve a problem like Ronaldo? Perhaps by acknowledging that he isn’t one, certainly not in the short-term, and definitely not for a characterless club in desperate need of an identity, if it could only shake off its grandiose pomposity.
With a visit to Anfield looming, United might want to ponder the awkward possibility that Ronaldo is one of the few, flailing Red Devils who bear a passing resemblance to anyone in a Liverpool jersey.
He actually delivers.
United might want to ponder the awkward possibility that Ronaldo is one of the few, flailing Red Devils who bear a passing resemblance to anyone in a Liverpool jersey. He actually delivers.
He’s a 37-year-old striker that still scores goals, a refreshingly uncomplicated work-life balance in the complex, imbalanced pantomime playing out at the Theatre of Dreams.
Of course, that’s not enough in United’s La La Land, i.e. the surreal space currently occupied by jaundiced pundits and sensational headline writers who hold the quaint view that the Red Devils remain a force to be reckoned with.
Panel discussion clips wonder if United should even keep Ronaldo, which is rather like a community theatre group asking if they should retain the services of Leonardo DiCaprio because he’s knocking on a bit.
Just keep quiet and be grateful that the brands currently align. That’s the only reason Ronaldo picked United over Manchester City and chipped in with a hat-trick at the weekend, reaching 15 league goals for the season, 21 overall and ensuring that the bizarre human experiment has scored 20 or more club goals in 16 consecutive seasons.
He’s still putting away chances that Raheem Sterling still misses – and did so again, rather characteristically, in Manchester City’s FA Cup semi-final defeat against Liverpool. (In a parallel universe, Ronaldo signed for City, accepted the eternal wrath of United supporters and, as an impact substitute, scored the opportunities squandered by Sterling and Gabriel Jesus and kept the personal brand on course for a possible Treble.)
But age, ego and tactical evolution are the critical stumbling blocks, supposedly, providing proof of a sporting colossus and a spluttering club being out of sync.
And yet, there is evidence to the contrary. Elite football is now a place for old men. The leading scorers in the Champions League and the Bundesliga (Robert Lewandowski, aged 33), Serie A (Ciro Immobile, 32), La Liga (Karim Benzema, 34) and the second top scorer in Ligue 1 (Wissam Ben Yedder, 31) are all in their 30s. Mo Salah, leading the EPL charts, turns 30 in June. Ronaldo is currently joint-third.
Scientific breakthroughs have swapped sore joints with cryo chambers. Fatty, pre-match meals have given way to full-time dieticians. Future injuries notwithstanding, Ronaldo will endure.
His ego compels him. It drives him to individual records that mean much more to him - 30 hat-tricks before the age of 30, 30 hat-tricks after 30, was the latest euphoric tweet – than to United’s current predicament. But in the short-term, competing ambitions align.
Ronaldo is chasing history. United are often hopeless. One is proving to be a handy panacea for the other. And if the striker’s presence negates Rangnick’s lofty, tactical aspirations? Is anyone seriously fussed at this point? The house that Ferguson built is falling down and the coaching staff want to obsess over the colour of the curtains?
Without Ronaldo’s devotion to the cult of Ronaldo, United would’ve lost to Norwich City - the EPL’s weakest team - taking any realistic claims to a top-four spot with it. Whatever his agenda, the striker is still a shot worth taking.
And that’s the gravest indictment. Ronaldo’s questionable value to Rangnick’s coaching philosophy glosses over a simpler truth. Find Ronaldo’s feet. He’ll find either corner. Find his forehead. He’ll plant the header. Give him a chance to feed the ego and underline the myth with a dramatic winner. He’ll take it.
Now find Paul Pogba’s feet. What happens? Isolate Bruno Fernandes. What happens? Release Marcus Rashford, pressure Alex Telles or target Harry Maguire. What happens? It’s a toss of a coin, like an improv night at a comedy club. The outcome is uncertain, potentially calamitous, but there’s always the promise of a decent punchline.
Liverpool know this. Just as they know that if a single chance falls to Ronaldo, instincts will take over. His movement, timing and execution will do the rest.
So Ronaldo presents a different sort of problem for United now, because he has something in common with his opponents. Whatever the motivation, he meets the requirements of his particular job.
Not many of his colleagues can say the same.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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