MANCHESTER, England (AP)Cristiano Ronaldo is unlikely to start for Manchester United against Chelsea on Saturday and he is still dominating the buildup.
The unused substitute left the Old Trafford stands and headed to the changing rooms before the end of the English Premier League win against Tottenham on Wednesday and United manager Erik ten Hag said he would ”deal with” Ronaldo.
The incident overshadowed one of United’s best performances of the season, and underlined again that Ronaldo’s most significant contributions are happening away from the field.
United’s preseason was clouded in uncertainty over whether he would stay, or leave for a club competing in the Champions League.
He did not join the rest of squad on its tour of Thailand and Australia due to a family issue, and when he did return to action in July he was among players who departed Old Trafford halfway through a friendly against Rayo Vallecano.
His clear frustration after United’s humiliating 4-0 loss at Brentford in August was caught on camera as he appeared to walk toward away fans and turn away gesticulating.
The latest episode left a frustrated Ten Hag fielding questions again for which he had no answers.
”I don’t pay attention today,” Ten Hag said after the match. ”We deal with that tomorrow. I want to keep the focus on this team. It was a magnificent performance from all the 11 players.”
Ten Hag’s choice of words was notable. There was no attempt to defuse the situation by claiming the veteran was given permission to leave early.
Confirming it was an issue that needed to be dealt with ensured speculation about Ronaldo’s future would go on.
It feels like Ten Hag’s bet on Ronaldo is destined to fail.
He was reluctant to let the player leave in the summer – fearing his squad would be left short of a prolific goal-scorer. But that remains the case, even with Ronaldo still at the club.
A return of two goals in 12 appearances is evidence of his struggles and Ten Hag’s inability to coax him in to form.
The manager has consistently claimed Ronaldo would be able to adapt to his high-pressing tactics, but his reasons for playing Marcus Rashford on Wednesday were telling.
”Against this Tottenham we need good pressing,” he said. ”We need good counter-press because from there you can create chances. We needed good pressing players. Offensive-wise you need dynamic, so that is what Marcus can bring.”
In a season in which Ronaldo scored the 700th club goal of his career, United has looked at its best without him.
Standout victories against Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham have all come with Ronaldo on the bench.
In beating Spurs 2-0, United produced its slickest forward play yet even if Ten Hag still lacks a clinical finisher, with Rashford once again failing to make the most of his chances in front of goal.
But the England striker justified his start for the energy he brought in closing down defenders and his speed to exploit space.
Ronaldo’s issues have not appeared to be down to a lack of willingness to fit into Ten Hag’s system, rather a lack of ability to do so.
There has been evidence of him pressing in wide positions – but his famed cutting edge in the penalty box has evaded him, perhaps because he is no longer preserving his energy for those decisive moments.
The outcome is unsatisfactory for all concerned – and his walk off on Wednesday is unhelpful for Ten Hag at a time when he is still establishing himself at United.
In his news conference ahead of Saturday’s game at Stamford Bridge, Ten Hag will face fresh questions over Ronaldo’s future and what, if any, punishment will be meted out.
It has the potential to be an unwelcome distraction as he aims to secure his first significant away win as United manager, having beaten Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham on home soil.
And Chelsea manager Graham Potter has already got the better of Ten Hag once this season – when he was in charge of Brighton and beat United in its opening game.
Ten Hag’s focus needs to be on Chelsea, not on more off-field drama around a player whose importance to the team is ever-diminishing.
A parting of the ways in January looks increasingly like the best solution for everyone.
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