Has there ever been a worse time to be a Manchester United fan? Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, United has gone through four permanent (Moyes, Van Gaal, Mourinho and Ole) and three interim managers (Giggs, Carrick and Ragnick).
Meanwhile, their two closest regional rivals – Manchester City and Liverpool have become the most dominant teams not just in England but in Europe, both coached by epochal managers whose tactical legacies of tiki-taka and gegenpressing have redefined the game.
At the time of writing, Liverpool thrashed Manchester City at Wembley in the FA Cup and are on course to complete an unprecedented quadruple.
Meanwhile, the once-mighty United juggernaut ambles on—a tribute more to Mammon than football—more bothered about merchandise sales, bottomlines and social media engagements than wins on the field.
Last week, they managed to lose to Everton, a team which looked incapable of beating anyone.
United, since Ferguson retired has taken the hue of a slapstick comedy with a Sisyphean struggle and Erik Ten Hag will already be wondering if he has made a mistake by promising to wear this particular crown of thrones because at this moment even Derrida couldn’t de-construct United’s problems.
The match against Norwich stuck to the pre-defined tragicomedy leitmotif. The men in red moved with the energy of a snail returning home from a funeral on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The Theatre of Dreams threatened to literally become one, as a soporific United team went through the motions like robots in red shirts who were already more focussed on what to caption their Instagram selfie at an Imagine Dragons concert.
With the score 2-2, United brought on unofficial club blogger Juan Mata and his legs-be-gone-a-long-time-ago Nemanja Matic, an act which was reminiscent of someone pulling out a vintage Nokia 3310 at an Apple event.
Harry Maguire Harry Maguired as only Harry Maguire can as he pulled off a Puskas-level scorpion kick which would’ve earned him the best goal if he stuck a football instead of Paul Pogba in the head.
Things looked dire as bottom-of-the-table Canaries came back from 0-2 down to threaten United before the man who refuses to bow to Father Time had his say.
Ronaldo’s hat-trick was the only silver lining in a shambolic performance. The irony is that United need a Ronaldo to pull one out of the rabbit’s hat to beat a team at the bottom of the table. And all three of Manchester United goals had an element of luck involved.
The first was thanks to Norwich attempting to play out from the back and getting caught with Anthony Elanga laying on Ronaldo for a simple tap-in. The second saw Ronaldo left remarkably unmarked as he leapt and scored an easy header from the corner. Tim Krul, the Canaries keeper’s lack of alacrity in dealing with a fierce shot can be blamed for the third. A sharper response would’ve prevented Ronaldo from scoring his first direct free-kick in 651 days.
The last one came in July 4, 2020 for Juventus against Torino.
This was Ronaldo’s 21st goal of the season, a remarkable achievement when you consider he’s 37 years old and most of his peers are either coaching, passing remarks from the warmth of a studio, or playing the protagonist in Amazon documentaries. On the other hand, Ronaldo powers on.
Over the last 16 years, Ronaldo has shown that he can do it everywhere – from a cold night in Stoke to warm afternoons in Madrid to lazy evenings in Turin.
He has scored at least 25 goals for club and country in every season since 2006-07, leading his country to a Euro and now dreaming to help Portugal win a World Cup for the first time in Qatar.
Given the talented cast that surrounds him, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. The numbers themselves are mind-boggling. 60 hat-tricks for club and country. Over 800 goals scored across three very different leagues. 50 hat-tricks for club and 10 more for his country.
There were rumblings when United re-signed him, with many wondering if he still had it in his 37-year-old legs to still do it in the fast-paced Premier League.
When Ronaldo returned for his second debut against Newcastle, commentator Peter Drury’s epic monologue had gone viral: “Reeved in red. Restored to this great gallery of the game. A walking work of art. Vintage beyond valuation, beyond forgery or imitation. 18 years since that trembling teenager of touch and tease first tiptoed onto this storied stage. Now in his immaculate maturity. CR7 Reunited.”
The results haven’t matched initial excitement one expected from Ronaldo’s return. He didn’t elevate United to the top of the table. He was often seen as a discontented man-child whining about the quality of his teammates, leading Gary Neville to slam him and ask him to get rid of the ‘whinging attitutude’.
It’s true that Ronaldo, like many footballers of his generation, have found it hard to abide by the behaviour of younger professionals. While Ronaldo is no social media Luddite like Roy Keane, he is believed to have been surprised by the lack of effort put in by his younger peers.
Some will hold him responsible for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s sacking although one can hardly blame him for the club’s failings in other positions including midfield or defence. Of course, there’s some validity to the argument that Ronaldo’s presence prevents United from playing the top-down pressing style that’s in vogue now.
Yet his longetivity is mind-boggling, especially for those of us who saw him start his career. When he made his professional debut in 2002 for Sporting Lisbon, the world was a very different place. In fact, no one who saw his substitute act against Bolton as a Manchester United substitute would’ve imagined that he’d back at Old Trafford 18 years later scoring a hat-trick after becoming the most prolific goal-scorer of all time.
On Saturday, the man who provided Ronaldo his first assist, Anthony Elanga was born when Ronaldo went professional. Friendster was the most popular social media with a mind-boggling 3 million users. 95% of folks still used Internet Explorer. Even his name was reserved for the Brazilian with an iconic hairstyle and toothy grin.
Since then, he has played for and against legends of the game from various eras. Maldini. Zidane. Giggs. Pirlo. And he’s obviously playing against those who will eventually take his place, especially Messrs Halaand and Mbappe.
His great rival Messi’s race already appears run as he has proved as productive as an American exchange student in Paris. For context, Messi has fewer goals (so far this season) in the Uber Eats league than Ronaldo has children.
Of course, it won’t go on forever. Like Messrs Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, time will eventually catch up, but there’s no denying that even Father Time is having a hard time laying a glove on Ronaldo.