Struggling Cristiano Ronaldo's Manchester United legacy now on the line

Portuguese striker has put goalscoring records above everything, and that is why manager Erik ten Hag is holding him back

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The moment Cristiano Ronaldo realised he would be staying at Manchester United, against his will after seeking a transfer, his priorities changed.

Euphoria had reached fever pitch at Old Trafford in the summer of 2021 as the big names came bursting through the doors. United’s long-running pursuit of Jadon Sancho finally paid off, four-time European Cup winner Raphael Varane seemed a substantial upgrade on Victor Lindelof, and homecoming hero Ronaldo the icing on the cake. A long-overdue title challenge was on the horizon.

The renaissance mission Ronaldo was supposed to spearhead, however, turned into a disaster as United finished with their lowest points total in Premier League history, and thus the goalposts shifted. The title had never been so out of reach in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era.

Ronaldo, therefore, wanted out. Winning things at United meant a great deal to the player who had not forgotten how the club put a scrawny teenager from Madeira on the map.

But with the fairy tale turning into a nightmare, agent Jorge Mendes invited offers for his star client last month. However, nobody could either afford the Portuguese superstar or wanted to take a risk on a 37-year-old with an ego greater than his bank balance.

What has come out of all this is no use to anyone, as United prepare for the Manchester derby this weekend.

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When given his chance this season, sparingly so far, by new boss Erik ten Hag, Ronaldo has resembled a human pinball machine, firing aimlessly for goal at every opportunity, from any impossible angle, in the hope of achieving his one aim now, with trophies off the menu – enhancing his incredible goalscoring record.

He is the only player in professional footballing history with more than 800 goals – 816, 39 ahead of Lionel Messi and 54 more than Pele in third.

The start of another season in his goal-laden career has, so far, not been pretty.

From his six Premier League appearances this term, mostly off the bench, Ronaldo averages a colossal 5.9 shots per 90 minutes – the most in the division – and is yet to find the net. In contrast, the man who has usurped him as Europe’s leading marksman – City's Erling Haaland – has 11 goals from 4.2 shots per 90 minutes.

Given a rare start in the Europa League against Real Sociedad two weeks ago, Ronaldo had four further efforts at goal, without even finding the target. There were no runs made into the channel, no attempts to join in the build-up, and defensive movements were again conspicuous by their absence.

He simply hung around the penalty area like a stray dog desperate for some scraps, or pulled the trigger when 40 metres from goal.

What Ronaldo has to realise is, if this final year at United isn’t going to end in embarrassing ignominy, becoming something resembling a normal team player is the only way he will get the chances to extend his goalscoring record.

Ten Hag, even given his sparing use of Ronaldo thus far, is still keen to get what he can out of one of the best forwards of all time. No bridges have been burnt yet. If Ronaldo is willing to work and operate as a central striker who doesn’t just look for goal every time, he will get further opportunities.

Further performances like his against Sociedad and even against Sheriff Tiraspol, where he did at least open his season's account, won’t help anyone, and will do most damage to the player himself.

He would rather have found pastures new, and there is some element of sympathy afforded to Ronaldo given the mess that United became around him, as the goals still flowed, last season.

His legacy, however, is on the line. Ronaldo still has the legs, more know-how than many of his compatriots combined, and a thirst for goals like no other. Now he must learn, even at 37, that curbing his desperation for extending personal records is the only way he will get the gametime to fulfil his ambition.

The early signs of change are good after he registered an assist for Portugal against Czech Republic on Saturday, and he will have more time to impress against Spain on Tuesday night in the Nations League.

Now for more of the same in Manchester.

Updated: September 27, 2022, 1:15 PM