Ronaldo gone and Maguire at crossroads as Manchester United make their return

It has been a significant World Cup break for the Old Trafford giants and the repercussions rumble on

Cristiano Ronaldo, right, has left Manchester United while Harry Maguire has found himself out of their first-choice XI this season. AP
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Much can happen in six weeks with a World Cup crammed into the middle of it.

Forty five days ago, the captain of Manchester United, as they sized up a chance to go joint-fourth in the Premier League, was Cristiano Ronaldo. Four days later, as they chased the modest target of a place in the third round of the League Cup, wearing the armband was the under-pressure, much-criticised Harry Maguire.

Safe to say both men, and a club that has switched the captaincy around liberally in the first third of a squashed-up club season, have turned some significant pages since. Ronaldo skippered United in the 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa on the penultimate Premier League weekend before the break for Qatar 2022. His contract would be terminated within a fortnight.

Maguire made what was only his fifth start of the club campaign overseeing a 4-2 win, also over Villa, in the League Cup. In Qatar, he equalled that number of starts within 19 intense days for his country, confirming his elevated status in an England team that only narrowly failed to reach the World Cup semi-final.

No time to rest either. Maguire is back on site at United’s practice ground, confronting uncertainties about his immediate future and a sharp readjustment. United’s reward for beating Villa on November 10 was Wednesday's fourth-round tie against Burnley.

Yes, domestic football for the elite clubs is swiftly back on the agenda, just four evenings after Argentina and France supplied their fabulous spectacle at the Lusail stadium.

If a League Cup game at Old Trafford seems very low key by comparison, it’s still a contest with enough jeopardy to generate big, alarming headlines for United. Burnley lead the English Championship; their hosts will still be recovering their bearings, not simply because so many senior players were in Qatar and some still on post-tournament leave, but because the ejecting of Ronaldo may yet carry some aftershocks.

His contract was severed, by mutual agreement, following an explosive interview broadcast shortly after the defeat at Villa. Critical remarks about Erik ten Hag, the coach who had dropped Ronaldo earlier in the season, and about the running of United made continuing impossible.

The 37-year-old will sign, free, for another club in the coming weeks, and in years to come be appreciated for his Old Trafford legacy, mainly from his first spell there. But the ugliness of his departure will take time to fade from memory.

Villa beat United in Premier League

As for the space he vacates, United intend to fill it in January with a newly signed striker. Ronaldo may be in decline – he was also dropped from Portugal’s starting line-ups in the knockout rounds of the World Cup – but that is not not to say United have a guaranteed finisher to make up for the powers Ronaldo no longer commands.

Their leading scorer last season was, by a distance, Ronaldo; their chief marksman so far this league season is Marcus Rashford, on four goals. Across town, Manchester City’s Erling Haaland is, on his own, racking up Premier League goals at a better per-minute ratio than United’s entire squad, who even without Ronaldo off the payroll, earn the highest collective wages in English football.

On that wage-bill there is now a new world champion. Lisandro Martinez appeared in five of Argentina’s matches in Qatar and, though he remained on the bench through the dramatic final, provided a souvenir snapshot for the album of a memorable night. Martinez thought, after the penalty shoot-out, to console France’s Raphael Varane, who had left the field in discomfort during extra-time.

Martinez and Varane have only been United colleagues since August, but there is a bond, and a confidence that in Ten Hag’s hierarchy, they are the first-choice partnership at centre-back, ahead of Maguire.

That leaves Maguire at a career crossroads. Over the past month, he was reminded that the England manager Gareth Southgate retains huge confidence in the leadership and authority of the United man, and has done throughout a challenging last 18 months for the defender, who has been booed at times by sections of the Old Trafford crowd.

Maguire started all England’s matches at the World Cup, and although he was deemed at fault when France’s Olivier Giroud sneaked ahead of him to head in the winning goal, off Maguire’s shoulder, in the quarter-final, he had a sound tournament. Ten Hag and the United coaching staff sent him encouraging messages. “Nice texts,” Maguire revealed, “saying how well I’ve performed and congratulations.”

He should get to wear the skipper’s armband again soon. Varane and Martinez will not be back available for United until, at the earliest, the resumption of Premier League matches next week. But if, into January, Maguire sees himself still well behind them in Ten Hag’s centre-back hierarchy, the temptation to seek a move elsewhere must grow.

Updated: December 21, 2022, 11:50 AM