What will Cristiano Ronaldo do: Stay at Man United, leave as free agent or go on loan? Our writers predict

Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the best ever to play the game, but at 37 years old, the Man United star is stuck in a tough situation. While he contributed plenty of goals since returning to Old Trafford last summer — notching 24 times in 38 appearances across all competitions — his presence and his style of play just don’t fit what new manager Erik ten Hag is trying to do with this squad.

After endless rumours about him trying to find a new club this summer, the transfer window closes on Thursday, so it’s really now or never. Could the all-world 37-year-old end up being an “impact sub” at Man United ahead of this winter’s World Cup? Will he end up as a free agent who can then find his next club beyond the transfer window? Or will he find a club willing to deal with Man United and take the Portugal forward for the season?

ESPN writers Gab Marcotti, Mark Ogden, Julien Laurens, Rob Dawson and James Olley offer their thoughts as to how this saga will ultimately play out.

So, what will happen with Ronaldo this week: He stays at United, his contract gets cancelled or he gets a transfer?

Gab Marcotti: My guess is he’ll be elsewhere other than Man United, and it’s highly unlikely given his wages that anybody would pay a transfer fee. The Venn diagram of clubs that can afford his wages, would want to have him on board and are playing in the Champions League this season is tiny enough. To then expect a transfer fee on top of that seems fanciful, unless it’s part of some accounting-driven swap deal.

So, I think if he leaves, it will be as a free agent, with United and Cristiano terminating the contract by mutual consent — and, perhaps, him getting some sort of severance, a bit like Luis Suarez did when he left Barcelona. Getting some sort of payoff would also widen the pool of clubs that could make it work financially.

Ultimately, I suspect he’ll have to take a pay cut as well. I doubt that part would be a problem for him — he has enough money — and whatever blow he suffers to his ego will be more than compensated for by the opportunity to prove his critics wrong by scoring goals domestically and in the Champions League.

Frankly, given that it’s a World Cup year as well, moving to a lesser-profile, lower-pressure club might even suit him … as long as he gets to play in the Champions League.

Mark Ogden: Ever since it became clear in July that Ronaldo wanted to leave United, I’ve believed he would eventually get his move, and I still hold to that. It makes no football sense, and little financial sense, for him to stay at Old Trafford.

Despite United’s public position, I’ve been told from the outset that the club have been prepared to offload Ronaldo to a club outside the Premier League and that Ten Hag is happy for the player to go, but the problem is that nobody wants to sign a 37-year-old who earns £500,000 per week. So everyone needs to compromise: In short, Ronaldo has to accept a big drop in wages, and United may have to pay up some of his contract and let him leave without a fee.

If that happens, Ronaldo becomes an affordable and attractive proposition for clubs that are interested but are unprepared to pay a fee and huge wages for him. Ronaldo and Ten Hag want a move to happen, so it probably will. Even if United have to pay up half his contract — which will cost them around £13m — they will be saving another £13m by not having an unhappy guy on the bench who isn’t contributing to the team.

Julien Laurens: Ronaldo will stay at Manchester United. There is not enough time now to transfer him while also finding a replacement in the squad. His agent, Jorge Mendes, will try until the last second of the transfer window, with Sporting CP and Napoli the last two options really capable of welcoming the superstar, but I think it’s too late now. I feel as though everyone would lose in this scenario, but they are all to blame for not finding a solution before.

Let me also say it makes no sense for United to keep him. He might score some goals, but he is not a Ten Hag type of player. It makes no sense for him to stay because he doesn’t want to stay. Equally, from a dressing room point of view, it seems even worse for him to remain after all the tension we saw last season and even this season between him and some of his teammates. If he stays, everyone will have to pull in the same direction and compromise to make it work, which feels impossible at this stage.

Janusz Michallik debates the future of Cristiano Ronaldo after the forward was used as a substitute vs. Southampton.

Rob Dawson: The most likely scenario is that Ronaldo stays at Manchester United until at least January. United have been clear all summer that he’s not available for a transfer, and even though Ten Hag’s tone has changed slightly over the past few weeks, the club have privately insisted their stance remains the same. Despite a summer of speculation, he remains the only out-and-out centre forward in the squad, and letting him move would leave Ten Hag short of options ahead of a season that could extend toward 60 games if they progress in the Europa League.

The ideal scenario for United and Ten Hag is that a fit and motivated Ronaldo is satisfied with a role that may not see him start every week and, more often than that, come on as an impact substitute toward the end of games. However, with time running out at the end of his career, you can understand why Ronaldo would want more. With his huge salary an obvious stumbling block and a lack of genuine offers from other clubs, he is set to stay at Old Trafford until January, as things stand, with the noise and speculation sure to start again after the World Cup.

James Olley: Ronaldo will spend the final 48 hours of the transfer window trying to find a way out of Manchester United, and it’s the best possible outcome for all parties. Let’s be frank: If United had received a suitable offer for Ronaldo, he would have left weeks ago when his agent, Jorge Mendes, began not-so-discreetly sounding out clubs in the Champions League over their level of interest in Ronaldo.

He doesn’t want to wait for another transitional season. He is chasing history, the Ballon d’Or, enhancing his legacy. But United’s new boss also doesn’t need all of this distraction. You can see that the Dutchman is already palpably irritated by fielding questions about Ronaldo every week, and although he has made positive noises in public about the forward being part of his future plans, the team selection against Liverpool was a clear statement about the substitute role he is likely to have.

The Ronaldo debate is often mistakenly framed in binary terms: He is either one of the greatest players of all time with enduring talent or a 37-year-old on huge money whose effectiveness depends on a team being shaped around him. The reality is that he’s both — and therefore his worth is based on a judgement call balancing those two aspects.

Ten Hag wants energy at the top end of the pitch, a striker who sets the press as well as one who scores goals. Many top sides are the same these days, which is probably a factor explaining why teams aren’t knocking down United’s door to sign him. Also, Ten Hag is desperately trying to reestablish discipline and professionalism into a fractured dressing room that counts Ronaldo as one of its most inspirational but combustible components.

Yet United will surely not cancel his contract. The most likely outcome as things stand is United and Ronaldo muddle through together until January given there is little time to sort out a move. But if an 11th-hour move materialises, you can bet Ronaldo will have his bags packed.

If he leaves United, which club (if any) makes the most sense for him to go to, and why?

Marcotti: I wrote a whole column about this. If it’s going to be an elite club, Real Madrid is the only fit I can find. He’s been there before, he has a great relationship with Carlo Ancelotti (and Ancelotti knows how to manage him), they can swing it financially (they’re sitting on the money they were going to invest in Kylian Mbappe) and they could use another goal scorer in addition to Karim Benzema and Vinicius Jr.

Of course, he’d need to accept he might not start every game, but at the Bernabeu, he could live with that. The problem is Real appear to have ruled this out … though minds can always change, right?

I can’t see other top clubs getting involved, partly because they are already covered in his position, partly because most have “system managers” and, rightly or wrongly, they don’t view Ronaldo at this stage of his career as a guy who fits a system. Beyond that, Sporting Club would have been an emotional homecoming, but Ruben Amorim appears to have ruled that out, going so far as to threaten to resign. Napoli makes little sense on the pitch, which may explain why the conditions reportedly being defined — sending Victor Osimhen to Man United for €130m, being responsible for 15% of his current wages, etc. — seem overly stacked in their favor.

Ogden: The big complication here is that Ronaldo wants to play in the Champions League this season, and there are only 32 clubs that have earned that privilege. Most of them won’t be able to afford him while the top clubs won’t need him, so his options are limited. Napoli, Atletico MadridAC Milan, Sporting, Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea are the clubs that have had some interest in Ronaldo this summer, but all have different challenges to overcome in terms of getting a deal done.

Napoli, Milan and Sporting are the most likely options. Napoli have the finances and desire to sign him, but playing alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Milan would be an interesting clash of egos. Sporting would offer Ronaldo a fairytale return to his first club and the chance to end his career in Portugal, but coach Amorim has expressed his opposition to signing him.

From a football perspective, and for personal reasons, a return to Lisbon with Sporting would suit Ronaldo best. But United and Ronaldo would need to work together to enable Sporting to afford such a move.

Laurens: The perfect club for Ronaldo to go to would have been Sporting. What a story to finish his career where it all began more than 20 years ago, and playing in the Champions League as part of a good team, for the love of the game and with the pride of wearing his boyhood club’s shirt for one or two last seasons. It would make so much sense and would be so beautiful.

Ronaldo could still go to MLS after a couple of years in Portugal, but Sporting’s manager Amorim is dogmatic, and the 37-year-old just doesn’t fit that philosophy. Apart from Sporting, I don’t think Ronaldo fits in another club. On the pitch, he is not really a fit anymore for anyone. Wherever he plays, he will, of course, always score goals because he is the best finisher the game has ever seen, but it is complicated to incorporate him into a system.

Dawson: Part of the reason Ronaldo is still at Man United with just a couple of days to go before the close of the transfer window is that there aren’t moves that make sense — at least for the clubs. Jorge Mendes has spent the summer trying to whip up interest from anywhere and everywhere, and despite links with Chelsea, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, Napoli and Borussia Dortmund, United are yet to receive an offer.

Chelsea could afford Ronaldo and they need a striker, but he doesn’t fit into the way Thomas Tuchel wants to play. Diego Simeone isn’t against signing ageing forwards, but there has been opposition from fans at Atletico Madrid, while Bayern Munich have ruled out a move multiple times. Dortmund and Napoli can offer Ronaldo Champions League football, but it’s unlikely they could afford his wages without United picking up much of the bill.

Paris Saint-Germain can offer Champions League football, guaranteed trophies and a suitable wage structure, but they already have Lionel Messi, Mbappe and Neymar. If there was an obvious club for Ronaldo to join, he would be there already; instead, the deadline is fast approaching, and he’s still at Old Trafford.

Olley: Clubs often get creative as deadline day approaches, and it remains possible that a team previously not linked with Ronaldo, but able to offer Champions League football, could make a late bid. Yet the £500,000-a-week contract at Old Trafford narrows his options dramatically. United may offer to subsidise those wages to some extent, but even then, the financial aspect is prohibitive for many.

Napoli and Sporting Lisbon are feasible destinations, at least in theory. United are one of many Premier League clubs to have looked at Osimhen, and some sort of Ronaldo-plus-cash deal would give Ten Hag a new striker and solve a major problem all in one go.

Atletico Madrid are thought to be working on an agreement with Barcelona that would avoid them having to pay another £35m for Antoine Griezmann: He is close to triggering a huge bonus for playing in more than half of the games he is eligible for as part of the loan agreement between the two clubs. Signing Ronaldo would ease that pressure, but Atletico fans have already expressed their unhappiness at the prospect of a Real Madrid icon joining their club.

Chelsea will be scrambling for a forward should they fail to secure a deal with Barcelona for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but Tuchel is thought to have expressed doubts about Ronaldo’s ability to press in the way he prefers from his forwards, which is one reason Chelsea loaned £99m club-record signing Romelu Lukaku back to Inter Milan after one season.

Committing more money on Ronaldo now would therefore be quite some U-turn, but this is the end of the transfer window after all. It can make clubs do ill-advised things.

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