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Cristiano Ronaldo’s best and worst moments in his career with Manchester United

From Champions League victories to refusing to play. The highs and lows of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Manchester United career

Roddy Cons
From winning the Champions League to refusing to play: the highs and lows of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Manchester United career

First came Erik Ten Hag. Then came Chelsea punishment. Then came Peers Morgan. And finally, while preparing with Portugal for their World Cup opener, Cristiano Ronaldo’s saga with Manchester United came to an end.

Ronaldo antics lead to United departure

A victory over Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford, where Ronaldo refused to come on as a late substitute and proceeded to make his way up the tunnel before the full-time whistle, was the final straw for Ten Hag, who had already been forced to deal with several other acts of indiscipline (coming right up) from his star striker. The Portugal captain wasn’t named in the squad for the subsequent clash at Chelsea, with a hefty fine and being ordered to train alone by Ten Hag serving as further punishment for his indiscretion.

It’s fair to say that Ronaldo’s long-term future in Manchester didn’t look especially promising from then on. Just months after claiming that the forward was “not for sale”, Ten Hag was reportedly prepared to let him go for nothing, with rumours linking him with moves to David Beckham’s Inter Miami, rich-again Chelsea and Roma, led by compatriot José Mourinho.

His United career is now over, and the former Ballon d’Or winner will probably be most synonymous with Real Madrid. A better than a goal-a-game scoring average over nine years (450 goals in 438 games, to be precise) and four Champions Leagues will ensure that.

Ronaldo didn’t make it to the end of his eighth season at United, the club where he became a global superstar before returning 12 years later having firmly established himself as one of the greater soccer players of all-time. Let’s take a look back at the highs and lows of the Portuguese’s time at Old Trafford, across two spells.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s highs at Manchester United

Sensational debut

After United’s senior players pleaded with Sir Alex Ferguson to sign him on the back on his performance for Sporting Lisbon against them in a 2003 friendly, Ronaldo was immediately handed the iconic number seven shirt, previously worn by Beckham (his direct predecessor), Eric Cantona, Bryan Robson and George Best. No pressure. A sensational league debut off the bench against Bolton Wanderers got the United faithful onside from the word go, with his extravagant flicks, tricks, stepovers and more immediately making him the darling of Old Trafford.

First cup final goals and victories

Having dominated English football for over a decade, Manchester United were in something of a transitional period in the first three seasons of Ronaldo’s first spell. Cup victories were the highlight and the Portuguese was at the centre of those successes, opening the scoring in the 2004 FA Cup final against Millwall and netting the fourth and final goal of United’s thrashing of Wigan in the 2006 League Cup final. The two first major trophies of Ronaldo’s career (the 2002 Portuguese Super Cup notwithstanding).

Post-2006 World Cup form

Ronaldo returned from the 2006 World Cup a different player. Thought of as a lightweight winger for most of his first three years at United, he had bulked up considerably by the time the 2006-07 campaign got underway and reaped the rewards for his newfound physicality. 64 goals in 101 Premier League matches led to three league titles, FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or awards in 2008 and a European Golden Shoe in 2007-08, a season in which he netted 42 times in 49 matches in all competitions.

First ever Champions League win

Ronaldo also won the Champions League for the very first time that season, with United defeating Chelsea in Moscow. The attacker inevitably netted the Red Devils’ goal in a 1-1 draw and his missed penalty in the shootout didn’t prove costly. As mentioned above, he would go on to win the trophy on a further four occasions, but the first time is always the most special, isn’t it?

Triumphant return

If Ronaldo was something of an unknown quantity ahead of his first Manchester United debut, he was anything but before the second, arriving back in Manchester having been crowned the world’s best player four more times while at Real Madrid. And he didn’t disappoint, scoring twice as United, then managed by former teammate Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, defeated Newcastle United 4-1.

All-time Champions League appearance maker

Ronaldo dragged the Red Devils into the knockout stages of the 2021-22 Champions League almost single-handedly with five goals in the group stages, during which time he became the competition’s all-time appearance maker (183). He continued to find the net relatively regularly last season despite his team’s collective struggles, with a brace in a 3-2 win against Arsenal allowing him to surpass 800 career goals and two hat-tricks in quick succession against Spurs and Norwich City other highlights.

Cristiano Ronaldo - a different player after the 2006 World Cup.
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Cristiano Ronaldo - a different player after the 2006 World Cup. Matthew PetersManchester United via Getty Imag


Early struggles

In those first three seasons at United, it would have been difficult to imagine that Ronaldo would go on to achieve what he has done and score the number of goals that he has. Between August 2003 and May 2006, the Portugal skipper scored only 19 league goals, a figure which he has bettered in 13 individual seasons later in his career. Having won eight league titles in 11 years prior to Ronaldo’s arrival, Manchester United didn’t win any for three years after he arrived. There were spells in which a young Ronaldo was thought not to be cut out for the physicality of the Premier League and the phrase ‘one-trick pony’ may have originated with him. How wrong they were.

Failed initial move to Real Madrid, Champions League final loss

Ronaldo pushed for a move to Real Madrid in 2008, a year before he moved to the Santiago Bernabéu, with then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter unbelievably arguing that he should be allowed to make the switch rather than be subject to “modern slavery.” The forward remained at Old Trafford for another season and helped the club reach the Champions League final, before which rumours of a move to Spain were rife once more. Whether they affected Ronaldo’s performance in the 2-0 defeat to Barcelona will never be known but it remains the only time he has lost in a Champions League final.

Can Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford be classed as a successful one? 24 goals in 38 matches in his first season back would suggest so, although it is only now, with Ronaldo on the fringes of the first team, that the club appears to be making any progress on the pitch.

Difficult relationship with Erik Ten Hag

When it was announced that Ten Hag would be the man to take charge at United, many thought Ronaldo would be unwilling to do the defensive work required to fit into the Dutchman’s system. Their relationship has been an uneasy one and the Portugal captain’s behaviour since the former Ajax manager’s arrival looks as if it will be the end of him at Old Trafford. Even under interim manager Ralf Ragnick, there were hints of Ronaldo’s unhappiness at not playing a full 90 minutes in a 3-1 victory at Brentford.

A similar reaction ensued when he was hauled off in last weekend’s draw at home to Newcastle, which came three days before his refusal to come on and venture off down the tunnel against Spurs.

Given that there had been a similar episode in a pre-season friendly against Rayo Vallecano, when Ronaldo left the ground before the final whistle, this latest one has proved to be one step too far for Ten Hag.


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