Departing Ronaldo May Expose United's Flaws

Jacob SteinbergCorrespondent IJune 11, 2009

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 16:  Cristiano Ronaldo of Manchester United lifts the Barclays Premier League trophy after the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford on May 16, 2009 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

The jaw-droppingly huge fee will doubtless soften the blow of losing Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid. Manchester United can take solace in that at least. Yet £80m in the bank will not score 42 goals in a single season alone, and that is the dilemma Sir Alex Ferguson must now tackle if his team are not to be left in the slipstream by Chelsea and Liverpool.

Expect a debate to rage over the wisdom of so lavish a sum being spent on a man who kicks a ball for a living. In the worst recession many can remember, Real have seen fit to spend nearly £140m on two players. For that amount, they might have considered a defender or three. Let us leave football's freakonomics for now though. We now know that even the largest of clubs has its lavish price. 

The adage goes that no player is bigger than the club and Ferguson has constantly re-inforced that notion during his time at United. He has never been afraid of selling his stars and those decisions have never come back to haunt him. When he sold Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis in 1995, the double was won a year later. Ruud van Nistelrooy was sent to Real in 2006 and United regained the league from Chelsea the next season.

Those men had grown stale however. Ronaldo is only 24 and has the best part of a decade at the top left in him. Perhaps a more fitting comparison was the sale of Jaap Stam to Lazio in 2001. United lost a title they had won three years in a row to Arsenal that season. This move is less reckless and, unlike the Dutchman, Ronaldo wanted to leave, but the implications could be similar.

United's fans have already begun drawing up their epitaphs for the Portuguese. Some claim he will not be missed; they cite the tantrums, the arrogance, the refusal to track back. This is merely putting on a brave face in difficult times. How to replace a player who has bagged 91 goals in the past three seasons?

The accusation against this United side has been that they are reliant on Ronaldo, that their trophy count would be considerably smaller without him. The critics are about to find out whether that's true, but the suspicion last season is that Ronaldo agrees with them. That is worrying for a group that can boast Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez.

The facts are in support of Ronaldo, who missed the start of last season because of injury. Without him United began with an insipid draw at home to Newcastle and soon followed that up with their first defeat against Liverpool under Rafael Benitez. Ronaldo made his first start on 27 September and scored in a 2-0 victory over Bolton Wanderers.

Having been denied his dream move to Real last summer, he carried the air of a man struggling against the weight of the world's indifference. The Old Trafford crowd's reception was frosty, and he often tried the patience, such as when he substituted himself against Sunderland or threw his tracksuit top to the ground after being removed against Manchester City.

For all that, he was too good for Ferguson to truly admonish. Against Aston Villa in April, his mistake allowed the visitors to go 2-1 ahead, yet he still scored two excellent and vital goals. He erred similarly against Porto in the first leg of a Champions League quarter-final, gifting his compatriots a goal. In the second leg, his decisive shot from 40 yards silenced all criticism. Ronaldo always comes up with an answer

In a team that has struggled to put chances away, that is vital. Sixty-eight league goals on their way to winning the title was a meagre total, and Ronaldo got most of them. Success was built on the foundation of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. United are not flush with goalscorers and the pair could struggle if the team neither swash nor buckle next season. Berbatov, Rooney and Tevez flatter to deceive, Nani and Park Ji-Sung cannot be relied upon, and there are few threats from midfield.

The theory now is that Ronaldo's departure will allow Rooney to shine for United in a central as he has for England. It has been Rooney's year at the start of a season too many times. Now he must deliver on a consistent basis. He must prove Ferguson wrong once and for all. Berbatov and possibly Tevez must improve as well.

United, of course, will have money to spend. Options are plentiful and the likes of Franck Ribery, Antonio Valencia and Karim Benzema could join. Ferguson will choose carefully, and it is likely he has been planning for this eventuality for at least a year. Ferguson once blustered that he would not sell Real a virus, let alone Ronaldo, but he may soon have to cure United's ills.