Cristiano Ronaldo did not want to play in the Europa League but now, it’s the best he’s got

If Cristiano Ronaldo was something of a completist, he might have approached this second year of his Manchester United homecoming with a good deal more enthusiasm.

You only need to look at his roll of honours at a club, international and individual level to know why. Five Champions Leagues and five Ballon d’Or are joined by multiple Premier League, La Liga and Serie A titles, not to mention top scorer and player of the year awards for each of those three top flights. The domestic cup wins stretch into double figures, while all that he has left to win with Portugal is the World Cup.

There is, of course, an outside chance that by Christmas, he will have added world domination to arguably the most decorated curriculum vitae in world football. Even then there would be one small gap in it, though, if you’re being picky.

Ronaldo has never won the Europa League or its equivalent. Before this season, he had barely played in it. His only experience of the second tier of European competition was a couple of Uefa Cup appearances against Partizan Belgrade during his breakthrough year at Sporting Clube de Portugal. There is a simple reason for that, of course: ever since those days as a spotty, gangly teenager, he has been too good for it.

That was certainly Ronaldo’s argument during the summer when the prospect of a season spent outside of Europe’s elite was considered an affront to a player of his status, as well as a waste of what precious time he has left at the top. There was some substance to that argument, too. After all, if anyone could legitimately consider the Europa League to be beneath them, it was the Champions League’s all-time record appearance-maker and goalscorer.

Until now, that is, as an outstanding career gradually slows to a stop. Ronaldo’s penalty against Sheriff Tiraspol in Chisinau last month was the 699th club goal of his career and his first-ever in this competition. But it was also his first of the season in any competition because, more often than not, he has not been part of the first-choice United line-up playing games of a higher priority.

Whereas Ronaldo has only started twice in the Premier League under Erik ten Hag, he has started in all four of United’s Europa League engagements so far. He has played all 90 minutes in three of those games, coming off in the 80th of the other. Contrast that with the league, where he has only stayed on the pitch for the duration once, during the cataclysmic 4-0 defeat at Brentford.

Through the Europa League, Ten Hag has deftly given Ronaldo enough opportunities to demonstrate that he should still be a regular starter. He has failed to take them. His display against Real Sociedad was desperately below par, while 180 minutes against the seventh-best side in Cyprus last season produced a furious 15 shots on goal but nothing of substance. That penalty in Chisinau was one of two attempts that Ronaldo managed all night.

Even then, Ten Hag has only failed to play Ronaldo in three of United’s Premier League games this season. On the first of those occasions, in the chastening derby defeat, he was left on the sidelines to watch Manchester City win 6-3 of “respect” for his career. In the second, Ronaldo himself refused to come on. The third was Ten Hag’s punishment of him for that show of insubordination.

The uproar at the end of last week that followed Ronaldo’s walk-out has slowly and gradually de-escalated since. Ten Hag and Ronaldo are said to have been in dialogue over the weekend and on Monday, when the United manager took a rare opportunity to give his players a day off. There was no need for showdown talks at Carrington on Ronaldo’s return. He simply resumed training with the group as planned.

Ten Hag refused to answer questions regarding Ronaldo at his pre-match press conference, turning down an opportunity to reveal if the player had apologised for last week’s incident. The United manager said little beyond stating that the matter is now resolved, Ronaldo is back in training, and he is in contention to play against Sheriff on Thursday evening. “I think we said everything and we answered all the questions,” Ten Hag insisted.

Yet one question left unanswered is whether Ronaldo will come straight back in and start, as he has in all of United’s Group E outings so far. If he does, it will be a clear olive branch from the manager to his player and the first step on the path back to the guaranteed starting status he feels he deserves. Ronaldo did not want to play in the Europa League this season but for now, with no regular place in Ten Hag’s first-choice line-up looking likely, it is the best he has got.

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