If Erik ten Hag was in any doubt about whether Cristiano Ronaldo was ready to start Manchester United ’s first game of the season - his response to criticism has erased it.
The fact that there is any debate over Ronaldo’s position in United’s starting XI shows just how tumultuous the last three months have been. Few would have anticipated at the end of last season that the 37-year-old’s future would be one of the most hotly discussed topics in world football.
But alas, his desire to facilitate a move away from Old Trafford has not only disrupted his own pre-season, but cast a shadow over the entire club’s. Ten Hag allowed Ronaldo to miss United’s summer tour of Australia and Asia - and has eased him back into the fold since.
Ronaldo has played just 45 minutes since breaking up for the summer, but it was his exit from Old Trafford - rather than what he did on the pitch - which made headlines.
Ten Hag opted to not name his talisman specifically when he described several players’ decision to depart early as “unacceptable”. But if the Dutchman thought his most high-profile player wouldn’t bear the brunt of the reaction then it was his first stroke of naivety.
The new United boss has insisted that keeping Ronaldo at the club beyond September was always in the blueprint and has repeatedly stated he intends to “stick to the plan”. What he perhaps hadn’t forecasted was starting the veteran striker after such a disrupted period of preparations.
But after Anthony Martial pulled up with an injury in training, Ten Hag’s options to replace him against Brighton are minimal. He may still opt to keep Ronaldo on the bench, waiting to make an impact against tiring legs.
And he now looks set to have a role to play vs Brighton
However, that would be going against the player’s wishes, who has made it clear he is fit, happy and raring to go. Mirror Football exclusively revealed that Ronaldo has been ‘firing’ in training in the days leading up to their clash with the Seagulls and has told Ten Hag he is in prime condition.
Ronaldo’s attitude has rightly come under question in recent weeks, but sources at Carrington have said that he has been at his best in training - backing up Ten Hag’s own version of events.
“How do I feel about starting the season with Ronaldo? I'm really happy,” said Ten Hag. “I had told you before: we planned with him for the season. We have a top striker and I'm really happy he's here, he's in the squad and we stick to the plan.”
Erik ten Hag is happy to keep Ronaldo in his plans at Man Utd
Ronaldo may have issued a response on the training pitches at Carrington but he may need to be ready to devise some more answers, with his former team-mate and Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville urging him to face the cameras.
“He’s got all the experience in the world, would it be too much to ask him to do an interview to clear things up and what he’s thinking?” Neville said on Friday night.
"Would that be too much to ask a senior player? Is he not going to do an interview for the next three weeks or after the game on Sunday?
“We’re going to ask for him, is he going to come up, stand up, do the interview and not let people do the speaking for him? I think that’s the thing that would be a stat. For me, I’m disappointed because the clarity we haven’t got.”