When Cristiano Ronaldo returned to Manchester United in 2021, expectations on both sides were high.
Here comes the prodigal son, making his spectacular return to Old Trafford to turn around the fortunes of a club struggling to compete at the highest level.
And while he showed flashes of his goalscoring prowess in his debut season, his return eventually flattered to deceive and now the relationship between Ronaldo and Manchester United appears to have soured.
The superstar had attempted to leave United before the start of the season and the relationship hit a new low in United’s 0-0 draw with Newcastle on Sunday, in which Ronaldo was replaced by Marcus Rashford after 72 minutes.
The Portuguese striker looked far from happy after being hung on by manager Erik ten Hag, but his performance had been as frustrating as it was lackluster.
It was indicative of his form for United of late, with Ronaldo managing just one league goal in a season in which he has been largely limited to substitute appearances.
“We have to cover four games in 10 days and especially for the strikers, I want to keep them cool,” Ten Hag told reporters when asked about his decision to withdraw Ronaldo.
“I want to keep them all fresh, so we have to rotate there.”
In truth, Ronaldo’s expectations have probably been unfair.
He is undoubtedly a waning force and no club should pin all their hopes on a 37-year-old – regardless of his physical form.
Where once he bullied defenders and finished almost every half chance that came his way, Ronaldo is now frequently caught offside and seems to be trying too hard to find his once talismanic talent.
It came down to a desperate attempt against Newcastle, with Ronaldo stealing the ball from goalkeeper Nick Pope and rolling it into an empty net before the shot-stopper had even taken a free-kick. He then received a yellow card for admonishing the referee.
Ronaldo’s form has now become a problem for ten Hag. The Dutchman has been tasked with creating a new era at Old Trafford and has set out to implement a new style of play.
Although he had to adapt his philosophy due to the players at his disposal, it’s not hard to see that Ronaldo is no longer untouchable and that Anthony Martial and Rashford are the preferred striking options when in form.
Ronaldo, who missed pre-season as he tried to walk away from the club, can no longer pressure the opposition like others can, which is a vital part of the way United try to play . There’s also the issue of his age and the fact that a club can’t rebuild around a 37-year-old target man.
“I want to support him as best I can. We have certain demands from players, which we expect in certain positions,” the Dutch coach told reporters last week when asked about Ronaldo.
“I want to get the best out of him, he’s in better shape now and I’m happy with that. At first it was (lack of fitness), it’s proven again, no one can miss a pre-season.
Ronaldo’s slump in form was on full display ahead of Sunday’s game when he received an award for reaching 700 club goals in his career.
Where he was once a force to be reckoned with, he now has to get used to his new role in a team that seems to have exceeded the need for the club legend.
It’s no small feat for a five-time Balon d’Or winner and, unfortunately for United, no dressing room can function properly when their biggest superstar is unhappy.
But the lure of Ronaldo’s goalscoring ability still hasn’t been fully extinguished.
Had he still been on the pitch in Rashford’s place against Newcastle, he probably would have buried a last-minute header that the Englishman could only head.
That’s why, despite all the problems it presents, Manchester United still can’t let go of arguably the greatest goalscorer in the history of the game.