It was Spain 3 Ronaldo 3. That’s how good Ronaldo was in that game last Friday night, dominating the 90 minutes with his pace, skill, drive, desire, and leadership. Although he has modified his game as he has grown older, he seems impervious to the ravages of time, exhibiting the same acceleration, power and skill that he displayed a decade ago.
It was actually 10 years ago when he left Old Trafford. Ever since then, the idea of him returning to the club at some point in his career has long been mooted. While Ronaldo clearly enjoyed his time at United and retains great affection for the club, the idea of a reunion has always felt like a fanciful notion. He has openly confessed Real Madrid is the club he has always dreamed of playing for, and he has been in supreme form since his very first game. He might be 33 years old now but he’s still, alongside Messi, the best in the world. He’s obliterating a number of individual records, as well as enjoying continued team success (2 league titles and 4 Champions League victories amongst them). He’s at a club that is giving him the silverware and stage that he craves. Despite what he says publicly – and he’s been known to use the media to his advantage – it would be an enormous surprise if he genuinely wanted to leave.
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Instead he’s used the speculation each year to bolster his wage demands. A thinly-disguised threat to leave has become an annual event, swiftly followed by an increased pay packet. While Ferguson was still the manager in 2013, the rumours were at their strongest, and it’s believed Ronaldo was tempted to reunite with who he often described as a father-figure to him. Ferguson’s retirement destroyed that idea, and the stories since then have grown increasingly unconvincing.
I suspect Ronaldo quite likes the idea of returning to United, but he’s content to leave it as exactly that: an idea. The reality – leaving sunny Madrid to return to a rain-soaked Manchester is likely to be less appealing. And although United can claim to be the biggest club in the world, they remain a team in transition, and leaving Madrid – European Champions for the last 3 seasons – would liekly feel like a backwards step.
From United’s point of view too, it would exacerbate their confused transfer policy. For a long time, both under Moyes and Van Gaal, the club’s recruitment policy was muddled and impulsive. Players were signed because they were available, rather than being based on a forensic analysis of what the team needs. So many players were signed – Schweinsteiger, Falcao, Fellaini, Di Maria, Depay to name a few – without sufficient consideration given to how they would be employed in the team, leaving to an inconsistent team and an unbalanced squad. Mourinho’s best achievement when he arrived was to amend that policy, clearly identifying the players he needed for certain positions. There was an impressive single-mindedness and clarity of thought. That approach was dismantled somewhat by the signing of Alexis Sanchez in January – recruiting a player that prefers to play on the left-wing has done little to improve the team and only hampered the progress of Martial and Rashford. Hopefully it’s not a sign United will return to their old ways.
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It would, however, be a similar scenario with Ronaldo. He is no longer a winger. Despite drifting around the pitch, he operates as a centre-forward. No-one will look at United’s squad and feel the majority on the transfer budget should be spent on a position that Lukaku already successfully fills. It’s unlikely he would fit naturally into a system alongside Ronaldo, meaning the Belgian would be restricted to substitute appearances and irregular starts; a backwards step for one of United’s real successes last season. In addition to a centre-half, a left-back and possibly another midfielder, United desperately need a right-sided attacker, and should be clinical in their pursuit of players who can fit into Mourinho’s favoured formation. The recruitment should be focused, which is why Gareth Bale or Willian would be a better option than Ronaldo for United at this moment.
Sometimes, though, logic should be thrown out the window. Ronaldo transcends it. He’s not only the best player in the world; he has a credible claim to be the greatest of all time, and should the impossible occur and Ronaldo became available, United would rightly find the deal irresistible. It won’t happen, of course, but we’re entitled to dream. We’re just fortunate he’s an integral part of United’s history.