Were it not for Cristiano Ronaldo, Manchester United would be rooted to the foot of their Champions League group with just two points from four fixtures. As it is, though, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side sit at the top of Group F on seven points. This is the difference Ronaldo makes at this level of the game.
He’s only been back at Old Trafford for just over two months, but Ronaldo has already delivered a number of big moments on the big occasion and another one came in the 91st minute of United’s must-not-lose match at Atalanta, when the 36-year-old volleyed home a chance that only he could have converted.
It’s unlikely Solskjaer would have been sacked after a defeat in Bergamo, particularly with the Manchester derby only a few days away, but this was another moment of individual brilliance that will buy the Norwegian that bit more time to prove that he can turn United around.
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There has been much discussion around Ronaldo’s role in Solskjaer’s team. Most notably, the Portuguese’s inability, or unwillingness, to press high has given Manchester United a problem to solve which was brutally highlighted in Liverpool’s 5-0 win at Old Trafford two weeks ago.
Solskjaer played Edinson Cavani alongside Ronaldo against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday to compensate for this with the Uruguayan’s work rate masking a number of fundamental structural issues, but this requires Manchester United to sacrifice a place for a wide forward, which is a problem for a club with such strength in depth in that position.
However, for all his flaws, which he undeniably has at this stage of his career with his physicality fading, and the ways United have to accommodate him, Ronaldo is worth it all. There has never been a goalscorer like him, as Ronaldo has demonstrated countless times over the years, and Solskjaer is right to compromise for him.
If Solskjaer can’t find a way to fit someone as good as Ronaldo into his team, that’s on him - not Ronaldo. After all, the Portuguese isn’t much different at this stage of his career, in terms of his profile and what he offers and doesn’t offer on a football pitch, to the player who fired Real Madrid to three consecutive Champions League titles between 2016 and 2018.
On the attacking side of the ball, Ronaldo should be the perfect frontman for Manchester United. It’s not as if he plays off long balls or with his back to goal. Instead, Ronaldo plays on the shoulder of the last defender. He runs the channels and does everything possible to get in behind. Tactically, Ronaldo is generally a good fit.
The lack of structure and cohesion in the centre of the pitch is a much bigger concern for United than Ronaldo, as is Harry Maguire and Paul Pogba’s individual form - both players were at fault for the goals conceded to Atalanta on Tuesday night. These are the things Solskjaer must focus on. This is where meaningful progress can be achieved.
“Cristiano for us is like Michael Jordan for the Chicago Bulls,” Solskjaer explained after the 2-2 draw against Atalanta. “Nobody can question the character of these players. They just don’t give up and they don’t give in and they keep going. We had to make a few changes, and they worked.”
A point in Bergamo might just prolong the inevitable in terms of Solskjaer ultimately getting sacked at some point, but with Ronaldo on the pitch the Norwegian still has a chance of saving himself, and saving his team’s season. Ronaldo might give Manchester United some problems, but he is also the solution.
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