MOSCOW -- Manchester United have a pretty poor track record when it comes to dealing with Real Madrid, one of a number of reasons why nobody at Old Trafford is getting too carried away by the prospect of luring Cristiano Ronaldo from the Santiago Bernabeu this summer.
United may have kept David De Gea from Real's clutches two years ago, when the Spain goalkeeper appeared all set for a return to his home city with the European champions, but it was only because of a paperwork hitch on Madrid's part that prevented the deal going through.
United did not score a victory against Real as a result of some smart transfer-window manoeuvre. If anything, Ed Woodward, United's executive vice chairman, has learned the hard way that when it comes to dealing with Real and their star players, there is usually only one winner. Fabio Coentrao, Gareth Bale and Sergio Ramos have all been pursued to varying degrees by United in recent years but none of them ever made the switch. There is a belief within United right now that any move for Ronaldo will ultimately result in the same unsatisfactory conclusion.
We all know now that Ronaldo wants to leave Real, following the emergence of reports in Portugal last Friday. He has threatened to quit the club in the past but this time, according those who know him and his representative Jorge Mendes better than most, he means it. However United, scarred by previous attempts to re-sign Ronaldo, are perhaps sensibly treating the situation with caution.
Is this another example of Ronaldo being the boy who cried wolf, with the 32-year-old exploiting his status as Real's talisman to secure another pay rise? (He only signed a £365,000-a-week five-year contract last September.) Or is he putting pressure on his well-connected employers to help him deal with the allegations of tax evasion that could see him face a court battle in Spain?
The United hierarchy don't know the answer to either question. They have been told that Ronaldo is serious and that he wants Mendes to find him another club but the same message has been relayed to Paris Saint-Germain, Inter Milan and probably any other major club with the means to sign him.
United may have been told that Ronaldo is there for taking if they want him but whether they actually believe that to be the case is another matter. After all, they have been exploited by Ronaldo's camp in the past.
Ronaldo, sold by United to Real for £80 million in 2009, made all the right noises about a return to Old Trafford in 2013. Attempting to make a statement of intent following Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement that summer, Woodward and United pushed hard and believed they had a strong chance of putting Ronaldo back in a red shirt. But it never happened. Too much time and effort was wasted on a wild goose chase -- time and effort that Woodward and then-manager David Moyes could have put to better use -- and Ronaldo not only stayed at Real, he signed a lucrative new contract as a reward for his loyalty.
United were played by Ronaldo four years ago, and there is apprehension within the club that it may happen all over again if they pursue him this summer.
Can United afford him? Yes, but whether it is a deal that they can afford to do is a different question. Having chosen against extending Zlatan Ibrahimovic's contract, the money saved on the striker's wages will all but cover the salary currently earned by Ronaldo at Real. And even if United are forced to pay a world record fee to sign a player already in his 30s, it is a deal they could comfortably pull off.
But the United of Jose Mourinho are a different United to that which Moyes took charge of four years ago. There remains a determination to make a stellar signing each summer but Mourinho, whose relationship with Ronaldo at Real was not always harmonious, is all about building a team capable of winning as a unit rather than one built around a solitary superstar. If United are prepared to spend in excess of £100m on Ronaldo, would it better invested on two or three additions to other areas of his squad?
Mourinho knows Ronaldo could score the goals that might help win United the Premier League, but would he be prepared to put up with the media circus that would accompany the four-time Ballon d'Or winner, and would he accept being second billing to one of his players?
Ronaldo's shock decision to pursue a move from Real has led to uncertainty at United, though, because it may also lead to problems in completing a deal for Alvaro Morata, his teammate at the Bernabeu. United and Mourinho want Morata and Morata, frustrated by a lack of football at Real, is ready to make the move. But does his situation change if Ronaldo is serious about leaving and, if he is, can Real afford to let Morata go?
So even if United have no interest in joining the race for Ronaldo -- a race that may ultimately not even be run -- the saga has already complicated their summer transfer plans.
Ronaldo, who found the Mancunian climate a challenge throughout his six years at United, has so far said nothing to support suggestions that a return to Old Trafford is his favoured option and United have had no such assurances either. It now needs Ronaldo to set the record straight in order to show the world that he really does want to leave Real; otherwise, United will simply have to get on with their business without him.