Cristiano Ronaldo may not have played as Manchester United salvaged an incredible point against Chelsea on Saturday, but he was still one of the main talking points.
The striker has refused to be a substitute They won 2-0 against Tottenham on Wednesday. and then his decision to leave Old Trafford before the final whistle has dominated the headlines in a week when United have to celebrate taking a very respectable four points away from their top four rivals.
As the players celebrated Casemiro’s late equalizer at Stamford Bridge Ronaldo’s whereabouts were unknown after United coach Erik ten Hag removed him from the squad as punishment.
The Dutchman insisted afterwards that his team still “need” the Portuguese, but there are doubts whether his fairytale return is set for an unceremonious end.
Former Manchester United captain Gary Neville believes it’s just a matter of when Ronaldo will leave this season.
“Cristiano Ronaldo will have to go somewhere else and play every week because he cannot accept being on the bench,” he said on Sky Sports. “It’s fine, but finish this week or create a truce to get to the World Cup and then finish.
“It has to be finished.”
Is there no turning back?
Ronaldo’s actions in the final minutes against Spurs have caused a lot of controversy, but the main feeling seems to be that bridges have been burned.
Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag showed his authority by dropping Ronaldo for the Chelsea match and keeping him out of training with his first team squad.
Scenes of celebration from Manchester United players after Casemiro equalized against Chelsea in the 94th minute underlined what the Ten Hag are trying to protect as they showed fight, spirit and togetherness.
“I doubt Ronaldo will play for Manchester United again,” former England goalkeeper Rob Green said on BBC Radio 5 Live.
“It’s a messy divorce but Ten Hag has waited a moment. Ronaldo has burned bridges.”
Just a few weeks ago, Ronaldo was lauded for hitting the club’s 700-goal career milestone. At 37, time is no longer on his side and some can understand his displays of frustration as he desperately seeks playing time.
Former Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand believes the situation could have been handled better.
“I wouldn’t have been happy as a player, but emotions sometimes take away from you as a human being,” he said.
“Perhaps the communication has not been as clear when dealing with Ronaldo, who is probably the best player who has ever played, along with Lionel Messi.
“Now more than ever he needs that communication. He’s my partner and you want to see your friends well but I wouldn’t allow that in the dressing room. If there’s no communication, problems arise.”
Former Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane added: “Players have done a lot worse at Manchester United.
“Is there a way back? I’m not sure.”
Ten Hag isn’t closing the door yet
But despite what observers may think, Ten Hag has not closed the door on Ronaldo.
He was Manchester United’s top scorer last season and often rescued his team with stunning late goals.
Asked if the team missed Ronaldo on Saturday, the Ten Hag said: “Always.
“He can score goals and he’s valuable for us. We need him, that’s clear. I think I’ve said enough about this situation.”
Ronaldo is contracted to Manchester United until next summer, but has previously been linked with a move away from the club.
French giants Paris St-Germain have been suggested as a possible destination, though has been declared that seems unlikely.
A move to Major League Soccer has been seen as another possible option, and a return to former club Sporting Lisbon it has also been said that it has been discussed.
“Focus on an exit strategy” – analysis
BBC Sport’s Simon Stone:
Ronaldo has done it all since leaving Old Trafford after refusing to come on in the dying minutes against Tottenham last week.
But the fundamental problem remains.
At 37, Ronaldo wants to play. He feels he is still capable of performing at the highest level and can make a meaningful contribution in the big games.
On the other hand, Erik ten Hag is trying to create a team that can dominate possession and press high up the pitch in a modern style.
The two pieces of that puzzle do not go together.
Ronaldo believes there were offers to leave in the summer, as he wanted to do. United say there was none, other than one from Saudi Arabia, or at least one that wouldn’t involve continuing to pay a large percentage of his wages.
United now have six games before the World Cup. Ronaldo needs playing time. Given the events of this week, it suits everyone that the players keep their cool and that the coach uses the highest paid member of his team.
But now the focus should be on an exit strategy.
There were people at United in the summer who believed the dressing room would be better without Ronaldo. This week’s events show proof of that.
It’s also true that with a better side than United getting the ball into the right areas for a striker, Ronaldo can still be very effective.
Beyond the next three weeks, it’s best to see whether the two sides can get on without each other, even if that means United paying a chunk of Ronaldo’s wages, or walking away without a chunk of what the player is owed.