Finding positives out of the wreckage of another miserable Manchester derby for United was a difficult task, but the manner of the defeat did at least allow Erik ten Hag to kick the can down the road when it comes to Cristiano Ronaldo’s future at the club.
Ten Hag said he had ignored the possibility of bringing Ronaldo off the bench ‘out of respect for his big career’, suggesting the 37-year-old didn’t deserve to be dragged into the fray with United 4-0 down at City fans in a jubilant mood.
Man United did make five changes at the Etihad and that included a substitution at centre-forward, with Anthony Martial replacing Marcus Rashford, who had taken Ronaldo’s place in the starting XI after his return to fitness.
It was a plausible explanation and delivered with conviction, but nobody really thinks that had the game been in the balance at the point Martial entered the action Ronaldo would have been summoned instead.
Ten Hag has said all the right things when it comes to Ronaldo, but actions speak louder than words and it’s hard to get away from the idea that he’s considered very much the third-choice striker at the club under his management.
The Portuguese forward’s face as he was ignored on the bench on Sunday gave plenty away and Ronaldo himself must be starting to sense he has no real future at the club under Ten Hag. He hasn’t started a Premier League game since the 4-0 defeat to Brentford and with Martial in need of minutes after recovering from his own injury it might be that the Frenchman starts in Nicosia on Thursday night.
Martial was impressive as United’s No. 9 in pre-season and he was one of the few bright spots for United on Sunday, scoring two goals late on in a lively 31-minute cameo, that also included winning the penalty he stylishly converted. Those strikes were his first goals for United in exactly a year, but it does feel like he is probably Ten Hag’s go-to man at centre forward at the moment.
In his absence Rashford has looked lively as well, scoring in the wins against Liverpool and Arsenal. Rashford and Martial bring movement and pace to a front line in a way that Ronaldo does not at the moment.
A lack of fitness after a limited pre-season and this derby humiliation have given Ten Hag public excuses for keeping Ronaldo out of the action at the moment and there are now just 12 games left before the break for the World Cup.
Seven of those are in the Premier League and it might be that the case that Ronaldo doesn’t start any. He will hope to be more involved in the four Europa League fixtures remaining and the Carabao Cup fixture with Aston Villa.
That’s not the stage he expected to grace, however, and if there’s one bonus of a lack of significant action it’s that he will arrive in Qatar relatively fresh for his fifth and surely final World Cup. Ronaldo will be desperate for a run deep into the competition, but he might also be aware that the tournament is acting as a shop window. If he remains third choice at United by mid-November then an exit in January must surely be on the cards. The proximity of the World Cup to the winter transfer window could be a bonus in this regard, with a string of goals or strong performances making him a more attractive option.
Ronaldo might hope a Champions League club will come calling in January, something only likely to happen if he shines at the World Cup. His status at United might give him the energy and the motivation to do just that in Qatar.