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Ronaldo has moved on, so why haven't United?

Nick Atkin
May 10, 2014
Cristiano Ronaldo scored his last Manchester United goal five years ago against Manchester City in 2009 © Getty Images
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"Viva Ronaldo," were the words reverberating around Old Trafford, with Manchester United 4-0 up against Norwich in their first match after being freed from the shackles of David Moyes' reign.

The good times were back under Ryan Giggs, who had just been appointed interim manager until the end of the season. Almost every United legend had their name sung to the rafters, but none louder than Ronaldo.

He is still adored at Old Trafford, despite the semi-acrimonious nature of his £80 million departure to Real Madrid in 2009, a year after he claimed he was being treated like "a slave" when United refused to let him go.

That is because he inspired the last golden era in the club's history - three league titles and their third European Cup, in the space of three years.

Saturday marks five years to the day that Ronaldo scored his last goal for United. Striking that now trademark pose and run-up to hit the dead ball, Ronaldo lashed in a free-kick against Manchester City, at the time more of a mild irritant than noisy neighbours.

Cristiano Ronaldo helped put Manchester United into the 2009 Champions League final with two goals in the 3-1 win at Arsenal © Getty Images
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Ronaldo had also just put United into a second successive Champions League final with two goals in their 3-1 semi-final second leg dismantling of Arsenal, with the club about to clamber up onto the perch alongside Liverpool with 18 titles, when the score could have stretched to 19-17 in the Anfield club's favour, who finished runners-up.

Long live the memory of Ronaldo, indeed, because reality settled in with a cold, hard thud last weekend as United laboured to a 1-0 defeat at home to Sunderland, just a week after the feel-good factor had come back.

Ronaldo is preparing to take part in his first Champions League final with Real; he has gone on to win La Liga since his move as well as the Copa del Rey twice and has secured his second Ballon d'Or win. Ronaldo has an astonishing 177 goals in 165 appearances for Real and last week scored his record-breaking 15th and 16th goals in the current Champions League campaign.

Arguably he would have had several more trophies during his time in Spain, too, were it not for coming up against Pep Guardiola's Barcelona - in the conversation for greatest club side of all time - during his first three years there.

United on the other hand won't even be in the Champions League next season, for the first time since 1995-96.

United signings in the post-Ronaldo era

Cristiano Ronaldo left Manchester United in 2009 © Getty Images
  • Manchester United's 12 most expensive signings since selling Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009:
  • Juan Mata (Chelsea), £37.1 million
  • Marouane Fellaini (Everton), £27.5m
  • Robin van Persie (Arsenal), £24m
  • David De Gea (Atletico Madrid), £18.9m
  • Ashley Young (Aston Villa), £17m
  • Phil Jones (Blackburn), £16.5m
  • Antonio Valencia (Wigan), £16m
  • Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace), £15m
  • Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), £12m
  • Chris Smalling (Fulham), £10m
  • Bebe (Vitoria), £7.4m
  • Javier Hernandez (Guadalajara), £6m

Nobody could quite have predicted how far United would fall, though. Ferguson kept United more than just competitive without Ronaldo, papering over all the cracks to somehow win two more league titles before he retired last summer.

His departure brought United a then-world record transfer fee, which was only eclipsed last summer by Gareth Bale's £86m move, also to Real.

But where has that money gone? The men immediately tasked with filling Ronaldo's shoes were Antonio Valencia (£16m), Michael Owen (free) and Gabriel Obertan (£3m). Valencia is the only one of them still there, and he has hardly pulled up trees in his time at United.

Since the Glazer family bought United in 2005, they have spent around £700m on interest fees, bank charges and debt repayment. At least Tottenham reinvested their Bale fee on players, even if the jury is still out on how well that was spent.

Ferguson managed to keep United successful in spite of this, claiming another five Premier League titles and reaching three Champions League finals in his last eight years at Old Trafford.

He managed to drag every last ounce of commitment, desire and effort from a creaking squad, but it appears he got out at just the right time. With Ferguson - and his 'Chosen One' in Moyes - gone from the dugout, a stark light has fallen on the Glazer regime.

Alarmingly, United played the same centre-back and centre-midfield partnerships in the defeat to Sunderland at Old Trafford - Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, behind Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher - as they did in the same fixture six years ago in 2008.

Despite the supposed Ronaldo windfall, United didn't sign a central midfielder after the arrival of Anderson from Porto in 2007 until Marouane Fellaini was brought in for £27.5m on deadline day last summer. The way he's performed, he arguably doesn't even count.

The remarkable decline in performance standards following Ferguson's departure has seen the Glazers forced to loosen the purse string, with Juan Mata signed for a club record £37.1m in January and Wayne Rooney handed a new five-year, £300,000-a-week contract.

United will spend heavily in the summer transfer window, too, as they look to catch up with neighbours City, who look set to win their second title in three years.

Rewind five years and tell Ronaldo, as he prepared to lash in that free-kick, that the visitors to Old Trafford that day would become the dominant side in Manchester and he would probably laugh.

Cristiano Ronaldo has led Real Madrid to the Champions League final © Getty Images
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Nick Atkin is an assistant editor at ESPN.co.uk. He tweets at @NickAtkinESPN

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