Cristiano Ronaldo will feel like the walls are closing in.
With Chelsea joining Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain in deciding not to sign the 37-year-old, his prospects of playing Champions League football next season are rapidly fading away.
It looks increasingly likely that the Portuguese star will be locked in an increasingly loveless marriage with Manchester United, forced to slum it in the Europa League for the first time since he started out at Sporting Lisbon two decades ago.
While Erik ten Hag has vowed to breathe new life into a United team very much in decline, there is absolutely zero guarantee they’ll be back in Europe’s elite club competition anytime soon.
And while Ronaldo probably has the fitness levels to play into his forties, opportunities to win a remarkable sixth Champions League medal are likely to be thin on the ground in the twilight years of a stunning career.
There’s really little surprise that Chelsea have declined the chance to sign Ronaldo.
While it would have been a showy statement of intent by the club’s new American owner Todd Boehly to poach Ronaldo from a direct rival, Thomas Tuchel is building something very promising at Stamford Bridge.
Trying to shoehorn Ronaldo into those plans would have upset the equilibrium and diluted the team ethic in favour of one individual.
It would also have overshadowed the signing of Raheem Sterling, who sealed his £47.5million switch from Manchester City on Wednesday, and other more suitable summer arrivals.
In short, Chelsea would have repeated the mistake United made 12 months ago, when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s blueprint to improve on a second-place finish in the 2020-21 season had to be shredded to accommodate one of the world’s best.
And while Ronaldo’s 24 goals across all competitions ensured a bad season for United was not even more of a disaster, it came at a heavy cost for Solskjaer and the team as all balance and counter-pressing was lost.
The result was failure in the Champions League and domestic cups, plus a scramble to finish in sixth position in the Premier League under an interim manager in Ralf Rangnick who never gained Ronaldo’s trust.
After Ronaldo made it clear to United a few weeks ago that he had little desire to play Europa League football in the final year of his contract, the avenues of escape have one by one been closed off.
He was linked with Bayern as a replacement for Robert Lewandowski but his extravagant salary approaching £500,000-a-week was never something the German champions would realistically countenance. They have also bought Sadio Mane.
Money is no object for PSG but they too declined the chance to pair Ronaldo with Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe when the star’s agent Jorge Mendes came knocking.
That attacking line-up belongs in the realms of fantasy football but if the French club’s current constellation of stars cannot deliver that elusive Champions League win, why further spoil the broth with another cook?
Ronaldo has also been linked, more optimistically, with Roma but as much as Jose Mourinho would no doubt relish a reunion, his wage demands would surely be well beyond their means.
Real Madrid are the reigning European champions anyway so have little need to change anything, Juventus won’t be taking him back and Barcelona are impoverished, so options are now very thin on the ground indeed.
It’s perhaps little wonder then that stories are surfacing of £250million packages being offered up by clubs in Saudi Arabia.
The unnamed club are apparently offering Ronaldo £105million a year – a little over £2m a week – as well as a £25m fee for United and a cushy £20m bonus for his agent Jorge Mendes.
But Ronaldo isn’t exactly short of a few quid and ending his career in the Asian Champions League is presumably not what he has in mind.
So it looks like Ronaldo is stuck with United, left to hope and pray that Ten Hag can work immediate miracles when it comes to raising the standards allowed to collapse since his first spell there under Sir Alex Ferguson.
He isn’t currently with the rest of the squad on their pre-season jaunt to the Far East and Australia, excused on compassionate grounds, and it’s far from clear if he’ll play a part in any of it.
Ten Hag revealed in Bangkok that he has held discussions with Ronaldo over his future role and insisted in his usual forceful way that he is not for sale.
Besides, United don’t have too many other centre forward options and don’t appear to be close to signing one. Anthony Martial, brought back in from the cold, led the line in Tuesday’s 4-0 thrashing of Liverpool in Thailand.
After Edinson Cavani left the club earlier in the summer, United are thin up top. Martial and Marcus Rashford are now well-established as wide attackers and we simply don’t know whether Mason Greenwood will return to football.
So, although Ten Hag knows full well that Ronaldo won’t buy in to his heavy pressing style of football and put in the sprints to hassle defenders, he’ll demand of everyone else, he does need him to stay or risk being light up front.
Maybe there is room for compromise. If Ronaldo really doesn’t fancy playing in the Europa League then surely, he can sit out the Thursday nights and just focus on bringing his best to Premier League football.
But you can guarantee that if United make it through to the business end of the tournament and can sniff silverware, Ronaldo will want to be the main man.
When he returned to Old Trafford amid fan delirium last September, Ronaldo looked every inch the football romantic.
That notion is set to be tested to the limit in the season to come. If he truly loves United, then he’ll give everything to restore them to the Champions League and be fully committed to the cause.
The evidence of the summer so far, however, suggests Ronaldo will end up staying under duress as the exit doors are slammed shut one by one. – Daily Mail