On the pitch it was almost a perfect night for Manchester United. Their 2-0 win over Antonio Conte’s Tottenham Hotspur took them to fifth place in the Premier League and was widely hailed as the best performance to date of Erik ten Hag’s fledgling reign.
However, a few meters from the field, the problems brewed.
Cristiano Ronaldo, an unused substitute, left the bench and walked through the tunnel in the 89th minute before leaving Old Trafford before referee Simon Hooper whistled full-time.
Ten Hag promised after the game that he would ‘settle’ on Thursday with Ronaldo who walks straight through the tunnel. Then it turned out that he had refused to take on the Spurs.
The result was a statement from Manchester United on Thursday evening, which said: “Cristiano Ronaldo will not be part of Manchester United’s squad for Saturday’s Premier League game against Chelsea. The rest of the squad is fully focused on preparing for that match.”
He trains alone and will be separated from the first team for Saturday’s 5:30 p.m. kick-off at Stamford Bridge.
Later on Thursday night, Ronaldo released a lengthy statement saying: “Giving in to the pressure is not an option”, but it did not include the words “sorry” or “apologies”.
The Athletic investigates what happened and what now for Ronaldo, United and possibly Portugal with the World Cup in a month…
What happened to the Spurs?
Ronaldo watched from the bench on Wednesday night as his United team-mates beat Spurs thanks to goals from Fred and Bruno Fernandes.
He stood in front of the dugout wall at Old Trafford when Ten Hag made a double substitution (by sending in Anthony Elanga and Christian Eriksen in the 87th minute) and revealed on Thursday that he had refused to play in with his team for 2-0.
After 89 minutes, Ronaldo got up and went into the tunnel, despite Ten Hag still having to use two substitutions. He then left Old Trafford before the final whistle, before other United players celebrated their win over Tottenham in the dressing room.
Asked about leaving the field early, Ten Hag told Amazon: “I’m not paying attention today, we will tomorrow. I want to focus on this team, it was a great performance by all 11 players. I have to correct myself, it was a performance on the subs that came up. A team effort.”
However, others went further.
“That’s unacceptable, it’s so poor,” former England striker Gary Lineker said on BBC’s Match of the Day. Micah Richards, a Premier League champion at Manchester City, added: “It’s disappointing that one of the greats of the game does that when your team wins and makes it about him.”
How did Ten Hag deal with Wednesday’s incident?
It was Ten Hag’s decision to leave Ronaldo out of the squad for the trip to Chelsea, and also let him train alone, and the club has supported him in this.
The Dutchman wants Ronaldo to be part of what he is trying to implement at United, but it must be on his terms as a manager.
United declined to comment on whether Ronaldo had been fined for his actions.
Does Ronaldo have a form for this kind of behavior?
Ten Hag criticized Ronaldo and other United players for leaving an exhibition game against Rayo Vallecano early.
Ronaldo was substituted at half time and was then filmed outside the ground before the end of the game. Diogo Dalot was another who left before the end of the 1-1 draw.
After that match in the summer, Ten Hag said: ,,I certainly don’t approve of this. This is unacceptable, for everyone. We are a team and you have to stay until the end.”
Ronaldo also pulled the same stunt in a competitive match, but not in Manchester.
At Juventus in November 2019, Maurizio Sarri replaced Ronaldo with Paulo Dybala, with the Argentine striker scoring the winning goal of the match.
However, it was the second time in a week that Ronaldo has been replaced by Sarri and the veteran striker looked unhappy when he was replaced. He went straight to the changing rooms and Sky Italia reported after the game that Ronaldo had left the Juventus Stadium before the whistle.
What did Ronaldo say?
In a statement, Ronaldo said: “As I have always done in my career, I try to live and play respectfully towards my colleagues, my opponents and my coaches. That has not changed. I have not changed. I am the same person and the same professional I have been in elite football for the past 20 years, and respect has always played a very important role in my decision making process.
“I started very young, the examples of the older and most experienced players were always very important to me. That is why later I always tried to set the example myself for the youngsters that grew in all the teams that I represented. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible and sometimes the heat of the moment gets the best of us.
“Right now I just feel like I have to keep working hard in Carrington, supporting my teammates and being ready for anything in any given game. Giving in to the pressure is not an option. It never has been. This is Manchester United, and united we must stand. Soon we will be together again.”
What happens now?
In many ways it is as you were.
Ronaldo was only offered an offer to play in Saudi Arabia during a summer when he made it clear that he wanted to leave United to play Champions League football. Attempts by his representatives to seduce Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Napoli, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona came to nothing concrete.
Ten Hag initially wanted United to dig in and keep one of the best players ever in the game. But after returning from United’s tour of Thailand and Australia, which Ronaldo missed for personal reasons, his reintegration into the roster has proved challenging.
After Brentford’s 4-0 defeat, Ten Hag was more open to Ronaldo’s departure.
However, the 37-year-old is under contract until the end of the season and it appears that a willing candidate will still be needed to end his unfortunate second spell at United in January.
What is the view in Portugal in the run-up to the World Cup?
Ronaldo’s lack of form and competitive acuity often felt irrelevant when donning a Portugal shirt.
His total of 117 international goals is a men’s world record and only two players (Soh Chin-Ann from Malaysia and Bader Al-Mutawa from Kuwait) have more caps than his 190.
This, coupled with a Euro 2016 triumph, is enough to earn him divine status in Portugal, and who would be brave enough to drop their country’s greatest and most decorated player of all time?
But after a disappointing performance against Spain last month, Portuguese news channel A Bola said Ronaldo’s playing time for his national team “may need to be shortened”.
The hope is that scoring goals for United will help motivate Ronaldo and if not, at least keep him in good shape for Portugal at the World Cup.
Portugal will face Ghana on November 24 in Qatar, before taking on Uruguay and South Korea in Group H. Liverpool striker Diogo Jota will not be part of the Portuguese roster after a calf injury in the 1-0 win against Sunday against Manchester City.