When Cristiano Ronaldo made his return to Manchester United in 2021, expectations from both parties were high.
Here came the prodigal son, making his dramatic return to Old Trafford in order to turn around the fortunes of a club struggling to compete at the highest level.
And while he showed flashes of his goal scoring prowess in his first season back, his return has ultimately flattered to deceive and now the relationship between Ronaldo and Manchester United appears to have soured.
The superstar had tried to leave United before the season started and the relationship reached a new low during United’s dour 0-0 draw against Newcastle on Sunday, in which Ronaldo was substituted for Marcus Rashford after 72 minutes.
The Portuguese striker looked far from happy after being hooked off by manager Erik ten Hag but his performance had been as frustrating as it had been lackluster.
It was representative of his form for United of late, with Ronaldo managing just one league goal in a season where he’s been limited largely to substitute appearances.
“We have to cover four games in 10 days and especially for the strikers I want to keep them fresh,” Ten Hag told reporters when asked about his decision to take off Ronaldo.
“I want to keep them all fresh, so we have to rotate there.”
In truth, the expectations of Ronaldo have probably been unfair.
He is undoubtedly a fading force and no club should pin all its hopes on a 37-year-old – no matter how physically fit they keep themselves.
Where once he was bullying defenders and finishing almost every half-chance that came his way, Ronaldo is now frequently caught offside and looks to be trying too hard to find his once talismanic talent.
It was summed up by a desperate attempt against Newcastle, with Ronaldo nicking the ball off goalkeeper Nick Pope and rolling it into an empty net before the shot stopper had even taken a freekick. He then received a yellow card for remonstrating with the referee.
Ronaldo’s form has now become a problem for ten Hag. The Dutchman was tasked with creating a new era at Old Trafford and has set about implementing a new style of play.
Although he’s had to adapt his philosophy due to the players at his disposal, it’s not hard to see that Ronaldo is no longer untouchable and that Anthony Martial and Rashford are the preferred striking options when fit.
Ronaldo, who missed pre-season as he tried to leverage a move away from the club, can no longer press the opposition in the way that others can, which is a pivotal part of the way United are trying to play. There is also the issue with his age, and the fact that a club can’t rebuild around a 37-year-old target man.
“I want to support him as good as possible. We have certain demands from players, what we expect in certain positions,” the Dutch coach told reporters last week when asked about Ronaldo.
“I want to get the best out of him, he’s in better shape now and I’m happy with that. At the start, it was the case (lack of fitness), it’s proven once again, no one can miss a pre-season.”
Ronaldo’s fall off in form was laid bare before Sunday’s match when he was presented with an award for reaching 700 club goals in his storied career.
Where he was once a force to be reckoned with, he must now get used to his new role in a team which appears to have outgrown the need for the club legend.
That’s no mean feat for a five-time Balon d’Or winner and, unfortunately for United, no dressing room can function properly when its biggest superstar is unhappy.
But the lure of Ronaldo’s goal scoring ability has still not been fully extinguished.
Had he still be on the pitch instead of Rashford against Newcastle, he probably would have buried a last-minute header which the Englishman could only steer wide.
It’s why, despite all the issues it presents, Manchester United still can’t let go of arguably the greatest goalscorer in the history of the game.