MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Cristiano Ronaldo has been removed from Manchester United’s squad — but not the headlines.
He will play no part in his team’s game against Chelsea on Saturday and he is still dominating the buildup.
United manager Erik ten Hag has acted swiftly after Ronaldo — an unused substitute — headed to the changing room before the end of Wednesday’s 2-0 win against Tottenham.
“Cristiano will not be part of the Manchester United squad for this Saturday’s game against Chelsea,” United said in a statement Thursday. “The rest of the squad is fully focused on preparing for that fixture.”
Ronaldo will also train away from the first team until after that match, United said. But it is unlikely the story will end there in a season when the 37-year-old Portugal star’s most significant contributions are happening away from the field.
United’s preseason was clouded in uncertainty over whether he would stay or leave for a club competing in the Champions League.
He did not join the rest of squad on its tour of Thailand and Australia due to a family issue, and when he did return to action in July he was among players criticized by Ten Hag for departing Old Trafford early during a friendly against Rayo Vallecano.
His clear frustration after United’s humiliating 4-0 loss at Brentford in August was caught on camera as he appeared to walk toward away fans and turn away gesticulating.
The latest episode overshadowed United’s best performance of the season and left a frustrated Ten Hag fielding questions again for which he had no answers.
“I don’t pay attention today,” the Dutchman said after the match. “We deal with that tomorrow. I want to keep the focus on this team. It was a magnificent performance from all the 11 players.”
It has been dealt with — but only for now as it feels like Ten Hag’s bet on Ronaldo is destined to fail.
He was reluctant to let the player leave in the summer — fearing his squad would be left short of a prolific goal-scorer. But that remains the case, even with Ronaldo still at the club.
A return of two goals in 12 appearances is evidence of his struggles and Ten Hag’s inability to coax him in to form.
The manager has consistently claimed Ronaldo would be able to adapt to his high-pressing tactics, but his reasons for playing Marcus Rashford on Wednesday were telling.
“Against this Tottenham we need good pressing,” he said. “We need good counter-press because from there you can create chances. We needed good pressing players. Offensive-wise you need dynamic, so that is what Marcus can bring.”
In a season in which Ronaldo scored the 700th club goal of his career, United has looked at its best without him.
Standout victories against Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham have all come with Ronaldo on the bench.
In beating Spurs 2-0, United produced its slickest forward play yet even if Ten Hag still lacks a clinical finisher, with Rashford once again failing to make the most of his chances in front of goal.
But the England striker justified his start for the energy he brought in closing down defenders and his speed to exploit space.
Ronaldo’s issues have not appeared to be down to a lack of willingness to fit into Ten Hag’s system, rather a lack of ability to do so.
There has been evidence of him pressing in wide positions – but his famed cutting edge in the penalty box has evaded him, perhaps because he is no longer preserving his energy for those decisive moments.
The outcome is unsatisfactory for all concerned — and his walk off on Wednesday is unhelpful for Ten Hag at a time when he is still establishing himself at United.
In his news conference ahead of Saturday’s game at Stamford Bridge, Ten Hag will face fresh questions over Ronaldo’s future.
It has the potential to be an unwelcome distraction as he aims to secure his first significant away win as United manager, having beaten Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham on home soil.
And Chelsea manager Graham Potter has already got the better of Ten Hag once this season — when he was in charge of Brighton and beat United in its opening game.
Ten Hag’s focus needs to be on Chelsea, not on more off-field drama around a player whose importance to the team is ever-diminishing.
A parting of the ways in January looks increasingly like the best solution for everyone.
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