On the pitch, it was close to a perfect evening for Manchester United. Their 2-0 victory over Antonio Conte’s Tottenham Hotspur lifted them to fifth in the Premier League table and was widely heralded as the finest performance yet of Erik ten Hag’s fledgling reign.
A few yards off the pitch, however, trouble was brewing.
Cristiano Ronaldo, an unused substitute, left the bench and walked down the tunnel in the 89th minute, and then proceeded to leave Old Trafford before referee Simon Hooper had blown his whistle for full-time.
Ten Hag promised after the match that he would “deal with” Ronaldo walking straight down the tunnel on Thursday. Then it emerged he had refused to come on against Spurs.
The result was a statement from Manchester United on Thursday evening, which said: “Cristiano Ronaldo will not be part of the Manchester United squad for this Saturday’s Premier League game against Chelsea. The rest of the squad is fully focused on preparing for that fixture.”
He is training alone and will be separated from the first team ahead of Saturday’s 5.30pm kick-off at Stamford Bridge.
Later on Thursday evening, Ronaldo released a lengthy statement saying “giving into the pressure is not an option” but it did not contain the words “sorry” or “apology”.
Vimoul explores what happened and what now for Ronaldo, United and potentially Portugal with the World Cup just a month away…
What happened against Spurs?
Ronaldo watched from the bench on Wednesday evening as his United team-mates defeated Spurs thanks to goals by Fred and Bruno Fernandes.
He was standing in front of the dugout wall at Old Trafford as Ten Hag made a double substitution (sending on Anthony Elanga and Christian Eriksen after 87 minutes) and it emerged on Thursday that he had refused to come on with his team 2-0 up.
After 89 minutes, Ronaldo got up and headed down the tunnel — despite Ten Hag still having two more substitutions to use. He then left Old Trafford before the final whistle, before other United players celebrated the win over Tottenham in the dressing room.
Asked about Ronaldo leaving the pitch early, Ten Hag told Amazon: “I don’t pay attention today, we deal with that tomorrow. I want to focus on this team, it was a magnificent performance from all 11 players. I have to correct myself, it was a performance on the subs who came on. A squad performance.”
Others, though, went further.
“That is unacceptable, it is so poor,” the former England striker Gary Lineker said on BBC’s Match of the Day. Micah Richards, a Premier League champion with Manchester City, added: “For one of the greats of the game to do that when your team is winning, making it about him, is disappointing.”
How did Ten Hag handle Wednesday’s incident?
It was Ten Hag’s decision to leave Ronaldo out of the squad for the trip to Chelsea, as well as make him train on his own, and the club have backed him to the effect.
The Dutchman wants Ronaldo to be part of what he is trying to implement at United but it has to be on his terms as manager.
United declined to comment when asked if Ronaldo had been fined for his actions.
Does Ronaldo have a form for this sort of behaviour?
Ten Hag criticised Ronaldo and other United players for leaving a pre-season friendly against Rayo Vallecano early.
Ronaldo was substituted at half-time and was then filmed outside the ground before the end of the match. Diogo Dalot was another who left before the end of the 1-1 draw.
Speaking after that game in the summer, Ten Hag said: “I certainly don’t condone this. This is unacceptable, for everyone. We are a team and you have to stay until the end.”
Ronaldo has also pulled the same stunt in a competitive fixture — but not in Manchester.
At Juventus in November 2019, Maurizio Sarri replaced Ronaldo with Paulo Dybala, with the Argentina striker going on to score the winning goal of the game.
It was the second time Ronaldo had been substituted off by Sarri in one week, however, and the veteran striker looked unhappy when he was replaced. He immediately headed to the changing rooms and Sky Italia reported after the match that Ronaldo had left the Juventus Stadium before the full-time whistle.
What has Ronaldo said?
In a statement, Ronaldo said: “As I’ve always done throughout my career, I try to live and play respectfully towards my colleagues, my adversaries and my coaches. That hasn’t changed. I haven’t changed. I’m the same person and the same professional that I’ve been for the last 20 years playing elite football, and respect has always played a very important role in my decision-making process.
“I started very young, the older and most experienced players’ examples were always very important to me. Therefore, later on, I’ve always tried to set the example myself for the youngsters that grew in all the teams that I’ve represented. Unfortunately that’s not always possible and sometimes the heat of the moment gets the best of us.
“Right now, I just feel that I have to keep working hard in Carrington, support my team-mates and be ready for everything in any given game. Giving into the pressure is not an option. It never was. This is Manchester United, and united we must stand. Soon we’ll be together again.”
What happens now?
In many ways, it’s as you were.
Ronaldo only received an offer to play in Saudi Arabia during a summer in which he made it plain he wanted to leave United to play Champions League football. Attempts by his representatives to seduce Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Napoli, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona did not turn into anything concrete.
Ten Hag initially wanted United to dig in and keep one of the game’s greatest-ever players on their books. But after returning from United’s tour of Thailand and Australia, which Ronaldo missed for personal reasons, his reintegration into the squad proved challenging.
After the 4-0 defeat by Brentford, Ten Hag became more open to allowing Ronaldo to leave.
The 37-year-old, though, is under contract until the end of the season and it appears it would still require a willing suitor to end his unhappy second spell at United in January.
What is the view in Portugal ahead of the World Cup?
Ronaldo’s lack of form and match sharpness has often felt irrelevant when he pulls on a Portugal shirt.
His tally of 117 international goals is a world record in the men’s game and only two players (Malaysia’s Soh Chin-Ann and Kuwait’s Bader Al-Mutawa) have more caps than his 190.
This, coupled with a Euro 2016 triumph, is enough to earn him God-like status in Portugal, and who would be brave enough to drop their country’s best and most decorated player of all time?
But after a disappointing performance against Spain last month, Portuguese news outlet A Bola said Ronaldo’s game time for his national team “might have to be reduced”.
The hope is that scoring goals for United will help to motivate Ronaldo and if not, at least keep him in good shape for Portugal at the World Cup.
Portugal play Ghana in Qatar on November 24 before facing Uruguay and South Korea in group H. Liverpool forward Diogo Jota will not be part of the Portugal squad after suffering a calf injury in Sunday’s 1-0 win against Manchester City.