By the time Cristiano Ronaldo arrives in Qatar, the Portugal star might be straddling a fine line between being fresh and simply being not sharp enough to make a telling contribution in what is likely his final World Cup.
Make that one start in seven Premier League games for Ronaldo at Manchester United this season, and only one goal for club or country in all competitions. Oh, and that was a penalty in a Europa League match against Moldovan team Sheriff Tiraspol.
Ronaldo – one of world soccer’s greatest ever goal-scorers – didn’t even make it off the substitutes’ bench in the 6-3 loss to Manchester City on Sunday, a somewhat bewildering situation given how desperately the game was going for United at Etihad Stadium.
Expect to see Ronaldo get his weekly run-out for the English club in the Europa League on Thursday, this time at Omonia Nicosia in Cyprus as United continues its trek around some of the continent’s more unheralded soccer destinations.
It’s doing little for Ronaldo’s reputation or brand – and won’t be making Portugal coach Fernando Santos feel too great, either.
What kind of state is the 37-year-old Ronaldo set to be in when he links up with Portugal in mid-November ahead of the World Cup?
Fired up for the World Cup? Sure.
Fresher than many of his peers, especially those players in the thick of a packed European club schedule over the next six weeks? Almost certainly.
Yet, from the limited game time Ronaldo has gotten so far this season, there’s a growing feeling he will not be in the sort of rhythm Portugal needs him to be for its matches against Ghana, Uruguay and South Korea in Group H.
Ronaldo was rusty in front of goal for Portugal in its big Nations League match against Spain last week, squandering three decent chances in a 1-0 loss and not displaying the kind of clinical finishing expected of such an expert in front of goal.
Even in his rare opportunities for United this season, he has snatched at chances, seemingly anxious to make the most of his limited time on the field.
Also, how will Ronaldo’s match fitness hold up if he’s just not getting the minutes at United?
Ronaldo wore a look of sheer frustration as he sat in United’s dugout while City’s goals were flying in. United manager Erik ten Hag said he was protecting Ronaldo’s reputation by not bringing the striker on.
It might be too late for that.
It’s almost impossible to imagine Ronaldo getting dropped by Portugal at the World Cup.
At the same time, it’s almost impossible to imagine Ronaldo being the fearsome striker of old in Qatar, either.
Iran’s national team players both at home and in Europe have been openly showing support for protests in defense of women’s rights and against a government crackdown after the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police.
Asia’s top-ranked men’s team is in a World Cup group with the United States and England, and outspoken Iran players picked to go to Qatar look set to test FIFA rules against political statements at games.
Star striker Mehdi Taremi played for Portuguese champion Porto at the weekend again wearing a black wristband that has become a symbol for the protests.
In the Iranian league, goal celebrations were typically muted to acknowledge turmoil in the country that is entering a third week.
A tactical tweak by Premier League leader Arsenal has turned Granit Xhaka into one of the success stories of the opening months of the English season. It remains to be seen if Switzerland will make the same change at the World Cup.
Xhaka has typically played as a holding midfielder in his six turbulent years at Arsenal, during which time his defensive indiscipline and occasional rashness in his tackling often has been exposed. This season, however, he is playing further forward in midfield, as one of the two No. 8s in a 4-3-3 formation that is proving mightily successful for manager Mikel Arteta, whose team is top after eight games.
Given more attacking freedom, Xhaka has scored two goals – the latest coming in a 3-1 win over local rival Tottenham on Saturday – and set up three more to show he has an eye for goal.
For Switzerland, Xhaka tends to play as one of the two anchormen in midfield and rarely lets his country down. Switzerland coach Murat Yakin might think it’s too close to the World Cup to switch the role of his captain.
He must be tempted, though.
AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar contributed to this story.
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