One night a strike was threatened, two players with a combined age of 71 played at anything but a walking pace. The names of Juan Mata and Cristiano Ronaldo were chanted by the tens of thousands of Manchester United fans who remained in their seats for the lap of honour.
Mata still stood outside Old Trafford as midnight approached, signing autographs and posing for selfies with the last supporters who crowded around the players’ parking lot. No one was disappointed.
Ronaldo has excelled in quick escapes as much as in finishing this season, but was optimistic as he cheered on the spectators. “I haven’t finished,” he told the cameraman on the field. Those three words are ambiguous even though Ronaldo’s body language must be as reassuring to United supporters as his phenomenal level of performance over the past two months.
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“As far as I know he will be here again next season,” Ralf Rangnick told one of the rights holders when pressed on Ronaldo’s future. Rangnick’s opinion was devalued by the confirmation of Erik ten Hag’s appointment and the German’s dual role with the Austria national team. He’s just a sounding board for director of football John Murtough.
Rangnick has been borderline ingratitude towards Ronaldo after hat-tricks, determined to remain consistent in his assessment that Ronaldo’s role at United next season is tenuous. Gradually, Rangnick is closing in on Ronaldo retaining a pivotal role under Ten Hag.
Ronaldo has two games to equal the 26 goals he scored in his final United season in 2008-09 when he was 24. On an individual basis, his season is already a success: 24 goals; 18 in the Premier League and six in the Champions League, with the Premier League Player of the Month and Goal of the Month orbs to be added to his Madeira museum. Ronaldo can still match David de Gea on four Sir Matt Busby Player of the Years.
Should Ronaldo reunite with the towering Busby statue, his first and fourth awards would be 18 years apart, another remarkable reflection of his longevity and endurance. Only Heung-min Son and Mohamed Salah have scored more Premier League goals this season and Salah is the only player in the league with more goals in all competitions.
Those who scratched Ronaldo and his obituaries are starting to shred them. In a season where Edinson Cavani spent as much time in Montevideo as in Manchester, Anthony Martial fled to Sevilla, Marcus Rashford plunged to new depths, Bruno Fernandes was discovered and United sent off Mason Greenwood, Ronaldo carried the attack and the team.
Jesse Lingard’s brother has overestimated West Ham’s ability to finish above United. David Moyes lacked the guts to lead United and lacks the guts to finish above them. United yo-yo between the Champions League and the Europa League and will be back in the latter next season.
Ronaldo hasn’t played in the competition in its current form. He featured in the UEFA Cup as a 17-year-old for Sporting Lisbon in October 2002 and you wouldn’t want Jorge Mendes inserting a no-playing-time clause in the Europa League into Ronaldo’s contract.
Ten Hag should use the Thursday night schedule to his advantage. The group stage drudgery is less than Ronaldo and it would be advisable to keep him for the weekend’s league fixtures. Managers must also take into account the workload of a winter World Cup contested in trying conditions. United will play their six group games between September 8 and November 3 and will have a draw to play in the redundant League Cup before the sides descend to Qatar.
Rangnick recommended United sign two modern strikers, again citing the fluidity of attacking Manchester City and Liverpool: “Modern strikers don’t have to be wingers. If you look at Liverpool or Manchester City and look at their strikers, they have five or six top attackers.
“Gabriel Jesus, until four or five weeks ago he was barely playing. Now he is playing again regularly and if you look at the number of players they have and ask me if Gabriel Jesus is a central striker or a winger, is Grealish a central striker or a winger, they are all strikers who can play in different positions, they can also change and they can rotate.
“These kind of players, we don’t have many.”
Rangnick claimed that Ronaldo “is not a central striker, he doesn’t want to play in that position either.” Ronaldo has played more flexibly since Ten Hag was announced 12 days ago. Against Brentford, he was supported by the presence of a complex playmaker in Mata rather than the hit-and-hop approach of Fernandes.
If United follow Rangnick’s recommendation, they will sign energetic, hungry strikers ready to rotate with Ronaldo on a one- or two-year apprenticeship before ascending the throne.
Ousting Ronaldo will come as no surprise.