On Saturday, Watford fans tried their hardest to get inside Cristiano Ronaldo’s head, but there already appear to be enough demons residing there without any more uninvited visitors.
There was the occasional mocking ‘Siuuuu’ whenever something went wrong for Ronaldo, which was frequent, and there was also the familiar, though less frequent these days, Lionel Messi taunt of ‘you’re just a s**t.’ That was a common remark back when Messi and Ronaldo looked to be involved in their own personal wars to outdo each other every weekend, resulting in eye-watering goals and jaw-dropping moments on the pitch.
Because of football’s cult of personality, it will take some time for us to let go of the idea that Ronaldo and Messi are the best players in the world, but even if their heirs aren’t quite ready to take their place, the duo, who have a combined total of 12 Ballon d’Or titles, appear to be leaving the game’s pinnacle. Both players have the potential to light up the Champions League this season, and that stage has tended to bring out the best in them this season, but Messi has only scored twice in 16 Ligue 1 games for PSG while Ronaldo has nine goals in 23 Premier League games for United. That isn’t the record of the finest players in the world.
PSG’s offensive is so powerful, and their domestic league is so weak, that they can afford to tote Messi around like a free-styling Harlem Globetrotter, occasionally bringing the crowd to their feet with a new trick or flick, but United’s scenario isn’t comparable. The late-summer signing of Ronaldo may have helped sell shirts and provided a romantic storyline, but the main goal had to be to improve the team.
Signing a man who was still scoring nearly a goal per game in Serie A got us there for a while, but the warning bells are starting to ring. Ronaldo turned 37 at the beginning of last month, and he is beginning to show his age with each game.
His runs have been off-kilter, and the sharpness of his finish has been muted. The striker has one goal in ten games for United, but the teams he has failed to score against are possibly the most astonishing aspect of that.
He has not scored against Wolves, Brentford, West Ham, Middlesbrough, Burnley, Southampton, Leeds, Atletico Madrid, or Watford in that order. Ronaldo appeared to be alone in the Wanda Metropolitano, but if he’s having trouble against inferior Premier League competition, he’ll never be able to disturb Atleti’s defense.
Ronaldo’s confidence crisis comes at an inconvenient time for United: Edinson Cavani is set to leave this summer, but Ronaldo signed a two-year contract and was anticipated to play a key role into next season. It would be a mistake for United to start the 2022/23 season with the 37-year-old as their main scorer, based on recent evidence.
There are at least 12 games left in the season, possibly more if United can beat Atletico Madrid at Old Trafford in a few weeks. Ronaldo has enough time to regain his form and confidence. A dozen matches should be enough to silence the critics who are currently writing him off.
But what if that isn’t the case? If the next 12 or so games follow the same pattern, what do you think the outcome will be? United had to look for a youthful striker this summer, but they may also require a more consistent goalscorer to lead the line. Even 800 career goals aren’t enough to protect you from the passage of time.
If this is the case, United may have a problem deciding what to do with Ronaldo. Would he want to stay at United if he is no longer a definite starter, and would United see the value in having the highest-paid player in the Premier League as a backup plan?
Much of that thinking will be shaped by what occurs in the next three months. Ronaldo is far from over, but he is approaching the moment where he must demonstrate that he still belongs at the level United expects to achieve next season. Change, on the other hand, could be on the horizon.