It has all begun to feel like a marriage of inconvenience; the power couple reluctantly weighing up a separation.
The last six months have shown us that Manchester United and Cristiano Ronaldo no longer look quite so good together. The player knows it and, deep down, so probably do the club that first helped make him great.
They had their moments when reunited last season but United and Ronaldo found themselves fading in one another’s company. Life, they have both begun to suspect, would likely be better when apart.
It has taken Ronaldo to force the issue in the last week, asking to leave this summer if the right offer and suitor offering Champions League football is forthcoming. United maintain their talisman will not be sold but it is the lack of attacking alternatives, rather than a desperation to retain Ronaldo, that currently stands as the greatest motivation to hold on.
For all Erik ten Hag, the head coach tasked with reviving United, has said Ronaldo will be a central figure in this coming season, these opening attempts to engineer an exit might end up a blessing.
Ten Hag was not big enough to shift Ronaldo in his first summer, even if the forward’s presence jarred with his tactical beliefs. It was a battle Ten Hag had neither the stomach nor will to take on, not when Ronaldo holds such sway inside Old Trafford.
This, though, works for the new manager. Ronaldo is striving for diplomacy but he ultimately wants out within a year of returning. As has been made clear, United aren’t for him anymore. Not when a sixth-place finish in the Premier League brings the ignominy of Europa League football in 2022-23.
Ronaldo loyalists will highlight his 24 goals in all competitions and argue it might have been worse without him last season. Exist in a world of intangibles, however, and it is impossible to close off thoughts that it might also have been better.
Ronaldo was supposed to transform United from distant contenders to champions. He, along with Raphael Varane and Jadon Sancho, would be the all-important additions that revved up a progressive squad led by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
The big reunion was also meant to see Ronaldo bring on players like Marcus Rashford and Sancho but the form of both would indicate he inhibited them. Neither could even make the England squad by the season’s end.
Ronaldo’s individualistic streak has made him the player he is. There is not enough of him to bring on others. Not at this late stage of his career.
There is still every chance Ronaldo sticks around at Old Trafford and all this will be forgotten once a new season begins, yet this clear willingness to leave underlines how United and their No 7 now must serve polarized ambitions.
Ronaldo has to think short-term at 37, conscious that even his remarkable body can only hope to have three or four more years left at the highest level. He also has a World Cup with Portugal in November to consider.
United, meanwhile, have to plan long-term under Ten Hag. Rebuilding a faded empire requires a patience that the trophy-hunting Ronaldo cannot align himself to.
United are no longer the club he joined, seemingly on the cusp of something big (or better) under Solskjaer 12 months ago. Ronaldo sensed title challenges, silverware and extensive Champions League runs. Try as he did with those late goals and flashes of inspiration, United gave him none of what he is accused of.
The season was effectively over once Atletico Madrid had won the Champions League round of 16 tie in the middle of March. What followed was little more than a failed scrap for respectability. Egos, it transpires, took quite the hit.
The greater problem will come should Ronaldo not get the move he is agitating for. He has now made it clear it is Champions League or nothing. The Europa League, where United will ply their trade on Thursday nights, will simply not cut it.
Can Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Napoli or anyone else offer an escape and a 20th consecutive season in the Champions League? Possibly. But this is not the no-brainer signing it used to be.
Ronaldo will forever bring a certain guarantee of goals (over 800 and counting) but two clubs, first Juventus and now United, have regressed with him around.
Perhaps it wasn’t his fault. Perhaps he joined mismanaged clubs with greater, systemic problems. Perhaps, though, Ronaldo’s presence did as much to hinder as it did help.
Point to his personal statistics, the goals and the appeal. Point to the commercial gains if you really must. But Ronaldo, like Lionel Messi at Paris Saint-Germain, cannot claim to be a driving force for the betterment of a team anymore.
Only a very select number of clubs can consider Ronaldo signing this summer and the hook he has left dangling in a shallow pool might not get the nibble he wants with the season a month away. United, too, might consider selling Ronaldo a step they cannot justify in a transfer market where the attacking elite are in desperately short supply. This transfer window is already appearing ominously bleak without meaningful business yet done.
Ronaldo and United might be stuck with each other for 12 more months but the current introspection on both sides illustrates that these two would be better off with an amicable split.
(Top pic: Naomi Baker/Getty Images)