Will United Miss Ronaldo?

I’m going to miss him.

Sure, he’s a diver and a crybaby who is one of the least likable Manchester United players of all time. It was always difficult to defend him to United haters because, for all of his considerable talent, he had the maturity of a six-year old and temperament of a diva.

There were plenty of moments that made United fans feel less than proud over the fact that this Portuguese playboy was the team’s franchise bearer. There was the wink to the bench after his United teammate, Wayne Rooney, was sent off in the World Cup. There was the sideline tantrum after being lifted against Manchester City. There was the training ground dust-up with Ruud Van Nistelrooy. There was the orgy at his house that featured several hookers, Nani, and Anderson. I’m not going to speculate as to who did what with whom.

And there were the dives. Many of them. So many of them. Too many of them. In fact, you would think that he was trying out for Portugal’s Olympic Diving team with the rate that he went down after receiving the slightest bit of contact. There were a few funny bits on Special 1 TV over the last few months, but one of the best involved a puppet version of Ronaldo wearing snorkeling gear while proclaiming, quite rightly, that he did the diving. In fact, they later extracted an entire bit out of the joke, advertising for Puppet Ronnie’s Ab Workout. After all, throwing yourself to the ground and writhing around while contorting your body in ways that would probably hurt way more than any late tackle has to be good for your abs, right?

Despite all his faults, though, the man could score. And I’m not talking about beautiful women (although he was certainly no slouch in that department). As much as his detractors can point to several moments that made fans want to cover up those “AIG” letters on the front of their replica Manchester United kits, there have been many more moments of absolute brilliance.

There was the 40-yard rocket against Porto in the 2008-2009 Champions League, a goal that sealed their advancement into the Semifinals. There was the brace against Arsenal in the next round where he audaciously scored on a free kick from 40 yards and followed up with by running the length of the pitch to receive the pass from Wayne Rooney in the box for the second goal. There was the free kick against Portsmouth last season where Ronaldo let fly a beauty from long-range that prompted Sir Alex Ferguson to say that it was the best free-kick he’s ever seen (i.e. better than anything Beckham ever did). There was the cheeky back-heel in traffic against Aston Villa that still managed to beat Scott Carson easily.

If you go on Youtube and look at nothing but Cristiano Ronaldo highlights, you’ll be astonished at just how wonderful and versatile of a goalscorer he is.

As such, I’m a little astonished at the number of Manchester United fans who are glad that he’s leaving for Real Madrid. Sure, his act had worn thin and it was clear that his heart was no longer at Old Trafford. Sure, Manchester United got a great deal for him at £80 million, a number that was, more or less artificially inflated as a result of his 42 goal season last year.

A Ronaldo-led team can wreck havoc on English teams, but we all saw what happened in the Champions League Final. This season, in order to accommodate him, Manchester United had to play Rooney out of position, and they had to alternate between Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez, a situation that pleased neither of them.

The conventional wisdom is that, without Ronaldo, Rooney and Berbatov will play better, and Sir Alex can replenish his midfield, which was severely exposed against Barcelona. They’ll miss Ronaldo’s goals, but surely the goals will come from elsewhere. Maybe United won’t be as flashy or as exciting without Ronaldo, but there will be no dropoff as long as Ferguson spends wisely, right? If anything, the team will be better off since they’ll stop relying on Ronaldo as much.

However, if you look at the stats, you could argue that they’ll miss Ronaldo a lot more than they think. In the last three seasons, Ronaldo scored a total of 91 goals in 155 matches. During that timespan, there were 18 matches where Ronaldo was Manchester United’s sole goalscorer. In 5 of those 18 matches where his name was the only one on the Manchester United side of the scoresheet, he scored multiple goals. In all, he had 21 matches where he notched multiple goals, including the aforementioned braces down the stretch against Aston Villa, Tottenham, and Arsenal this season. Most importantly, he scored the go-ahead or equalizing goal an astonishing 48 times during the last three seasons.

In other words, more than half of Ronaldo’s goals resulted in Manchester United drawing level with or going ahead of their opponents. One of the (many) criticisms of Berbatov was that he seemed to score when his team was already well ahead and the result was not in doubt. Well, that can hardly be said of Ronaldo.

Also, look at the first month of the just-completed 2008-2009 season. Ronaldo missed the Community Shield, the Super Cup, and three League matches while recovering from off-season surgery. During that entire time, Manchester United failed to score more than one goal in any of their matches and only won one of those matches in regular time. The offense looked stagnant and impotent, so much so that their top scorer was Darren Fletcher.

It wasn’t until the second half of the Champions League match with Villarreal when United’s offense finally woke up and, not coincidentally, that happened to be when Ronaldo made his debut. Even though they ended up with a scoreless draw, the offense finally showed some bite and began getting results afterward.

Sure, it may have been early in the season, and you could probably write it off to the fact that Manchester United simply got off to a slow start. They did the same thing last year and they won the Premiership and the Champions League. However, it also showed just how much this team missed Ronaldo and how they were a much better team with him than without him.

Who’s going to step up and replace all those important goals? Will it be Rooney, who has never scored more than 23 goals in a season? Will it be Berbatov, who has never scored more than 26 and recently admitted to having been scared to take a penalty in the Champions League Final? Will it be Ribery, who’s never had more than 20 goals in any season? Will it be Nani, who was so bad this season that he only made 12 appearances in the League?

Maybe Ronaldo’s departure will actually make the team better and allow the team to pick up where they left off. Maybe Rooney will finally play to his potential and become the lethal force that he could be without Ronaldo holding him back. Maybe Berbatov will thrive after an uneven first year and justify every dime that Sir Alex spent on him and then some. Maybe Hargreaves will return to fitness and become the Roy Keane-type dominator that the team has lacked for years. Maybe Ribery, Benzema, and/or Valencia will contribute so many goals and set up so many others that people will forget that Ronaldo was ever a Red.

Or maybe Rooney and Berbatov can’t step up, Hargreaves retires, Ribery and Co. flop a la Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson, Forlan, and Bellion, and United will finish third in the league.

One thing is for sure, though. Manchester United will miss him. You don’t lose a player of his caliber and then assume everything is going to be okay. I guess we’ll have the rest of the summer to worry about that. For now, let’s thank Ronaldo for his six years of outstanding service to the club and wish him the best. He’ll need it, especially if Real Madrid continue to sign offensive stars and ignore their defense. Otherwise, he may finally have to learn how to track back.

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