Cristiano Ronaldo certainly appears to be in as good a shape as ever. His latest Instagram snaps show plenty of bulging muscles and veins, plus you’d be hard-pressed to find any trace of body fat.
But looking ripped in the gym is one thing; being match ready to slot into Erik ten Hag’s rejuvenated Manchester United team is quite another.
In not travelling with the rest of the United squad on their pre-season tour of Thailand and Australia, for family reasons, Ronaldo has missed a crucial three weeks of immersion into Ten Hag’s way of doing things.
Now, as he returns to United on Tuesday for talks with Ten Hag, his Old Trafford future remains up in the air.
Cristiano Ronaldo showed off his ripped physique in the gym as he missed Manchester United’s pre-season tour of Thailand and Australia
In his absence, United have been performing well. Three wins and a draw from their four matches represents a hugely positive return and there is suddenly great optimism about the campaign ahead.
Anthony Martial has staked his claim to fill Ronaldo’s centre forward position in the season-opener against Brighton on August 7, while Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho are other members of the forward line looking sharp.
It’s just as well Ronaldo has returned from Portugal because United’s patience was starting to wear a little thin. After all, he is three weeks late reporting for duty.
The Portuguese star has also made no secret about his desire to leave Old Trafford if the right offer comes in. The 37-year-old wants Champions League football in the twilight of his career and United can’t currently offer him it.
Ronaldo, 37, has been working to maintain his fitness but it remains far from clear whether he will be a Manchester United player for much longer
New manager Erik ten Hag has made a positive start to life at United, who won three of four matches during their tour and drew the other
But his options for a move away are rapidly diminishing – Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain have all politely declined the chance to sign him, while Atletico Madrid’s fans have made their opposition to the arrival of the Real Madrid legend abundantly clear.
All the while, the clock ticks down to the start of the new season. United have two friendlies left to play – against Atletico Madrid in Oslo on Saturday and Rayo Vallecano at Old Trafford on Sunday – and it remains to be seen whether Ronaldo comes fully back into the fold.
So what happens next? We take a look at the potential scenarios and the implications for all involved.
RONALDO RETURNS TO THE FOLD
The United squad have now flown home from Perth, which was their final stop-off on the pre-season tour, and will train at their Carrington base from Tuesday ahead of this weekend’s double-header.
Now that Ronaldo has ended his exile and come back to Manchester, there is at least a chance he could make the season opener against Brighton or at least one of the early Premier League games. Although that may depend on how talks go on Tuesday, after the Portuguese turned up with his agent Jorge Mendes.
But for all his footballing intelligence, Ronaldo will be playing catch-up. Ten Hag has not come in this summer and introduced a few cosmetic changes to an already successful United team.
Ronaldo fans in the Far East and Australia were denied the chance to watch their hero live
The Dutch coach is enacting a thorough overhaul of the way United play their football, bringing a new outlook and philosophy. It will involve a lot of hard graft, not least in pressing hard when out of possession.
At times, Ten Hag has been quite brutal when players don’t follow his instructions to the letter. We’ve had a few expletives from the touchline during games and training sessions during the tour.
But every indication shows the players don’t mind the tough love as long as it gets results and during pre-season so far, United have been getting the rewards for their endeavour.
Though Ronaldo spoke to Ten Hag during the early part of the summer, he hasn’t experienced him on the training ground and doesn’t fully know what is required of him in the season to come.
Given United and Ten Hag have maintained the stance that he won’t be sold, no doubt Ronaldo will be given a good idea when he speaks to the manager on Tuesday.
Ten Hag has spent over three weeks on the training ground with his United players – but not Ronaldo, who hasn’t been immersed in his philosophy
Ronaldo wasn’t willing to press defenders under interim manager Ralf Rangnick last season and now finds himself under a permanent coach with greater authority who’ll expect the same and more.
The forward has seen it all and won it all but it will still take time on the training pitches of Carrington to fully understand what Ten Hag wants him to do and to reconnect with those players around him.
The best case scenario for United is that Ronaldo has a positive chat with Ten Hag on Tuesday, commits to the cause, trains and gets himself up to speed in order to hit the ground running when the season begins.
Ronaldo could still be in contention for the start of the season if he returns to training soon
PLAY THE WAITING GAME
If Ronaldo is reluctant to return to commit, United could be forced to play a waiting game.
The player may still feel he can secure a move away and barely a week has gone by without him being linked to a different club. We’re told he is willing to take a substantial pay cut on his £500,000-a-week wages or go out on loan.
As mentioned earlier, a number of prominent European clubs – who will be in the Champions League this season – have considered a move for him and thought better of it.
Most likely, this is because of his wage demands or the disruption his arrival would cause to an already established team, as happened when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s best-laid plans had to be torn up a little under 12 months ago.
The forward could join Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, potentially on loan, this summer
The Portuguese put in a number of high profile performances against Atletico Madrid during his playing days with Real Madrid and Juventus
The latest is that his agent, Jorge Mendes, is trying to engineer a move to Atletico Madrid. But there are so many hoops to jump through, not least the need to offload the likes of Antoine Griezmann and Alvaro Morata first.
That’s before you take into consideration fan sentiment. Hundreds of angry Atleti fans made their feelings known by using the ‘ContraCR7’ (‘Against CR7’) hashtag on Twitter over the weekend.
One wrote: ‘If this one comes to Atleti, I will cancel my two subscriptions. We are not an asylum to collect scum.’
Atletico fans spent the weekend making their feeling known about the potential signing
Would the Atleti hierarchy really risk a fan revolt by bringing in a Real Madrid legend at such extortionate cost?
If that deal breaks down, Ronaldo really is out of options if he wants to join a Champions League club. Sooner or later, he would have to commit to United and see out the final year of his contract.
The problem with playing the long game until deadline day on September 1 is that Ronaldo’s absence would completely overshadow the start of United’s season.
Ten Hag was already bristling about regular questioning on the subject during the tour and it would only get worse once the Premier League returns.
It would cause a massive distraction, affect the whole vibe in the dressing room and obscure any genuine forward progress made by the rest of the team.
SIGN A NEW FORWARD
United could send a clear signal they’re willing to move on beyond Ronaldo by signing another forward during the coming weeks.
Ten Hag said during the tour he would like United to further strengthen their attack during this window. ‘I think it’s vital if you want to get success, the season is really long,’ he said.
They have been linked with Ajax’s Brazilian forward Antony, who would cost them £68million. He predominantly plays as a right-sided winger at Ajax, as Ten Hag well knows, and so wouldn’t be a direct replacement for Ronaldo.
United continue to be linked with Ajax’s Brazilian winger Antony, who is valued at £68million
Ten Hag knows Antony well from their time working together at Ajax over the last two years
Perhaps the coach feels that Antony, who scored 12 goals and set up a further 10 for Ajax last season, can be converted into a striker because otherwise he would be treading on the toes of Jadon Sancho.
The weekend saw United linked with £55million-rated Red Bull Salzburg man Benjamin Sesko, 19, who is an out-and-out centre forward.
As good as Martial has been on tour, United could certainly do with another body in this position regardless of whether Ronaldo stays or not.
Anthony Martial has impressed in the centre forward position during the pre-season tour
They lost Edinson Cavani over the summer and Martial simply cannot lead the line in every single game all season, especially with the slog of the Europa League to come. Without CR7, the burden currently falls on the shoulders of the Frenchman and Rashford.
The uncertainty over Ronaldo’s future does make it more difficult to snaffle a new striker. No top class frontman is going to join United in the knowledge they’ll be playing second fiddle to a 37-year-old, however good he is.
Besides, there’s now a very limited pool of them available and United don’t have Champions League football on offer.
Any striker brought in will have to be one for the future, happy to emerge and blossom whenever Ronaldo moves on. That could be sooner rather than later but who knows?
Marcus Rashford also looks in sharper form following a hugely disappointing 2021-22 season
PUT FULL FAITH IN MARTIAL AND OTHERS
A bold step by Ten Hag would be to sideline Ronaldo and put complete confidence in Martial and the other attackers to supply enough goals for United to be in contention for silverware in the season ahead.
If Ronaldo finds himself named among the substitutes in the opening few games of the season, it’s obviously not going to go down well.
But Ten Hag can fall back on the fact Ronaldo has missed a huge chunk of pre-season and isn’t up to speed with his vision of how the team will play.
If Martial or someone else like Rashford and Sancho hits the ground running and United pick up a few early wins, it will be all the easier for Ronaldo to fade out of the picture.
Jadon Sancho has also done well during the pre-season tour and is seen scoring in the 3-1 win over Crystal Palace in the third game
Yet his brooding presence on the bench is only going to cause more issues. You can already envisage the camera panning to the dug-out to capture his reaction whenever a chance goes begging.
What’s more, Martial, who looked for all the world like he was on his way out of Old Trafford before this tour, will have to go some to match the 24 goals Ronaldo scored last season.
Everyone in that attack will have to pull their weight a little more. Bruno Fernandes was the club’s second-highest scorer last season – with 10, while Rashford and Sancho could only muster five each.
Ronaldo scored 24 times for United last season, including crucial ones in European games
But a collective effort could compensate for Ronaldo, who may well remain as a pretty effective impact sub.
That’s not the role he imagines for himself, and there will be some friction, but Ten Hag has shown he is a coach with strong convictions and a clear idea of how he wants to play.
If that doesn’t involve Ronaldo, then it doesn’t involve Ronaldo. It will be very intriguing to see what happens next.