ADAM PEACOCK has a view from the stands of Cristiano Ronaldo’s slow and painful journey through the twilight of his career.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s career has centered around Tuesday and Wednesday nights when the best of the best play the Champions League.
Thursdays are for the rise, fade and exoticism of the Europa League.
And here he is, in his twilight, on a Thursday, emerging from the ugly corner, trying to help Manchester United out of their own malaise.
Eight days ago, Ronaldo left and returned home before full time in a 2-0 win over Tottenham. The victory was one of the best days of the season for United. The fallout was about Ronaldo, his Arthur Fonzarelli Instagram explanation devoid of the word sorry.
After a decade littered with apologies, United are on the rise again, an apparent improvement since the horrific start of August. A 4-0 defeat in scorching Brentford seems like three seasons ago.
Their exotic opponents this Thursday, the Sheriff of Moldova, arrived without a coach. Croatian Stjepan Tomas retired two days ago after a surprise league defeat. Tomas’ predecessor, Yuriy Vernydub, resigned in February to fight on the Ukrainian front line. And Sheriff cannot play European games at home, with UEFA a bit uneasy about a club based in an autonomous part of Moldova with close ties to host Russia.
Conflict that puts into perspective just how petty a footballer throwing toys in a bed looks.
Yet such is the power of the hobby in these parts, when a great fades so publicly, it’s impossible to look away.
United manager Erik ten Hag promised the problem had been solved and proved it by starting Ronaldo against Sheriff.
The player responded in a way his Instagram post couldn’t. Actions, not words, would prove that and throughout the first half he bounced between a deep-seated sheriff’s defensive block.
The Moldovans started with players from nine different nations. With the ball they were strangers, barely able to chain two passes together. Without the ball, they played with a back six, making Ronaldo think he could receive. And he did. He didn’t just wait for the moments to unfold, expecting the perfect delivery. There was no stropping when he didn’t win the ball back when asked.
A header went over, before a golden opportunity on 27 minutes missed.
In the 38th minute, Ronaldo appeared to threaten from the edge of the box but was blown off the ball with a robust but fair challenge. Unusual.
After each of those moments, a whisper swept through Old Trafford, a rough judgment was passed on whether a previous version of Ronaldo would have scored.
Yet the noisy SW pocket of Old Trafford, the only part of the famous ground where the vocal cords are strained everywhere, sang for Ronaldo without a hint of dissent for the man who disappeared without permission in the tunnel under them a week previously.
And then the revealing moment of the night.
In the 58th minute, with United 1-0, Ronaldo cleared high in the box, free to shoot with goalkeeper Maxym Koval on a sitting duck. The crowd had seen this story thousands of times before. Goal, sure. It was a bad remake. Ronaldo’s right foot smashed the ball high and wide at the Stretford End. Ronaldo stood puzzled, shaking his head, hands on his hips.
And the masses gave a standing ovation. The SW pocket sang louder, unwavering in their loyalty.
Ronaldo struggled, with many attackers escaping short interactions without reward. His effort didn’t falter and in the 81st minute he was rewarded by getting up for a header. Ronaldo reacted to Koval being saved to score a goal that meant more than your normal tapping against exotic opponents on a Thursday night.
United won comfortably, 3-0, as if there had been no drama all season.
The night doesn’t resolve how Ronaldo’s exit will be handled.
The World Cup is almost here, Ronaldo’s last chance with Portugal to add to their 2016 European Championship title. Manchester United are as likely to win the Premier League this season as Portugal are to win the World Cup .
The January transfer window is approaching and the prospect of another period of furious speculation over Ronaldo.
Going back to the recent timeline, before the game against the Sheriff, before last weekend when he trained alone (removed from the team that went to Chelsea) and before the midweek refusal of entering the fray late against Tottenham, Ronaldo’s final minutes began. against Newcastle, an intense 0-0 draw in which he was visibly frustrated when he was taken off in the 70th minute.
Playing 90 minutes against the Sheriff virtually rules out Ronaldo starting against West Ham on Sunday. No more debate.
Balancing every decision Ronaldo makes is an impossible task for ten Hag.
The Portuguese hero is no longer indispensable, particularly compared to the one with whom he exchanged virtuoso performances for an entire generation.
Lionel Messi scored another Champions League double this week, now up 11 in 16 games in all competitions this season. Messi is central to Argentina’s plans for the month of Qatar, a tournament La Albiceleste attend on a 35-game unbeaten streak.
Messi’s recall may well be on par with what his career has delivered. The lights are flashing at Ronaldo.
In any area of life, getting back together is always fraught with pitfalls.
Ronaldo’s reunion with Manchester United at the start of last season was born out of necessity for both club and player, and the Stretford End, Old Trafford’s most vocal opinion-making area, were giddy with adulation at the start of recovery. He scored on his return and did a TV interview in front of the stands where questions were barely heard.
He scored 18 goals last season in a disappointing campaign, in which the team descended into a dysfunctional unit, playing as 11 outsiders at the end of the season.
Manchester United is no longer a stranger.
Ronaldo, now an unknown actor, struggles to hold back his emotions, as time gradually and slowly conquers a belligerent victim.
Another Thursday night at Old Trafford, another night towards the inevitable.