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Ronaldo marriage is over but it’s Man UNITED who want divorce

Step by step, game by game, Cristiano is moving away from ; just not in the way that he imagined it.

Given that United’s next home game is against Arsenal on Sunday week, after the transfer deadline, he may have played his final game at Old Trafford.

If so, it was an inauspicious affair. A nine-minute substitute appearance – including five minutes of additional time – featuring one off-target shot and not much else.

His arrival got a big cheer, as always, but as he departed from the field, attention was elsewhere – much of it on a younger, more vibrant United team who had beaten in the league for the first time since 2018. A team who, pointedly, strode into the future without Ronaldo.

Earlier this summer, when he made it clear the pictures had got too small for him at United, he no doubt imagined being pursued down the street by suitors and by United, too, begging him to stay.

It is not working out like that. The link with Chelsea went nowhere and there was scant interest from the elite of the Premier League.

As Ronaldo is determined to maintain his record for starting each season since 2002-03 as a Champions League player, he had few options in this country, to say the least. There was a backlash against interest from and nothing doing in Italy after an unremarkable spell at Juventus.

But what has truly changed for Ronaldo in recent months is his relationship with United. It is no longer about him and where he is going, but more what the club are going to do with him.

Erik ten Hag talks encouragingly about the part Ronaldo can play because there is no point undermining a potential asset and a player with influence in the dressing room, but Ronaldo is in uncharted territory now.

For arguably the first time in his career, his club look better without him. Against Liverpool, they were far superior to any version of the team seen this year; and Ronaldo was not on the field.

Equally, he is no longer the exemplary professional, the standard for all to follow. Skipping the club tour – even for personal reasons – and not fit enough to start the season, this is not the Ronaldo we know.

Ronaldo may have been a high- maintenance individual but he was always worth the trouble. He led by being the best and most diligent worker, the fittest in the team. First on to the training pitch, last away.

Patrice Evra once accepted an invitation to lunch at Ronaldo’s home and discovered his motive was not companionship but a fitness buddy. Only soft drinks were on offer and the food was just athletic fuel. Ronaldo’s idea of fun was another workout.

So this season he has two strikes against him already. Seeing Ten Hag’s United in full flight on Monday with a mobile attack pressing in a way Ronaldo simply cannot, may have hardened the resolve of some that there is only one way forward from here. He no longer makes that starting XI.

He seems apart these days, active on social media but not immediately welcoming his former colleague Casemiro to the club – something team-mate Raphael Varane, who has followed the same path from Spain, did within minutes of the deal’s announcement.

There would appear to be an impasse. If Ronaldo was unimpressed at the prospect of Europa League football this season – he last featured in the competition for two games 20 years ago – he will be even less so at the thought that UEFA’s lesser tournament might represent his best chance of starting.

Ronaldo the man for the Europa League – in Europe his reputation still undoubtedly intimidates – is not a role he will relish. Ronaldo the Premier League super-sub, his position against Liverpool, even less so.

Ten Hag was insistent that Ronaldo could feature in the future and could play in a pressing game, but there is scant evidence of this so far. There is also no queue of buyers wishing to solve United’s problem, although one may emerge when the final Champions League line-up is known.

There have been some suggestions of a romantic return to Sporting Lisbon, although romance may be dead when he sees his pay cheque.

Either way, this was not the exit or the summer Ronaldo had planned, hence his coyness discussing it. He says he will reveal the truth about his feelings and actions when the transfer window has closed, but we may not have to wait that long.

At Old Trafford on Monday, the picture became a lot clearer. It just was not the one Ronaldo had hoped to see.

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