When Cristiano Ronaldo last played in the Europa League, it was still known as the UEFA Cup, and no one outside of Portugal had heard of Jose Mourinho, much alone Ronaldo.
In September 2002, the then-17-year-stint old’s in Europe’s B-list tournament lasted two games and resulted in an aggregate loss to Partizan Belgrade. Mourinho’s Porto would win the championship that year, defeating Celtic in the final, and Ronaldo has never reduced himself to those levels again.
Ronaldo had made his Champions League debut against Inter Milan a month before, and Sporting had lost that match as well, resulting in their relegation to the UEFA Cup. On August 14, 2002, Ronaldo faced Javier Zanetti and Christian Vieri, both of whom had not yet reached the age of 30.
This is a long-winded way of explaining that this happened a long time ago. Ronaldo has played 187 Champions League games and scored 141 goals since those two UEFA Cup appearances that season, but his streak is finished, at least for the time being.
United’s failure to qualify for next season’s competition has put Ronaldo on the outside looking in, but despite missing out on the Champions League and the inevitable knock-on consequences that means the Ballon d’Or will be out of reach, he has shown no signs of wanting to leave Old Trafford.
The 37-year-contract old’s with United has at least one more year left on it, and if he stays as expected, he will be a key part of Erik ten Hag’s plans for next season. The Dutchman has already referred to his center striker as a “giant,” and United will almost certainly rely on his goals once more.
The issue now is whether he will participate in the Europa League this season to add to his two outings in the UEFA Cup. For the time being, the answer should be no.
Ronaldo is at a point in his career when playing twice a week is just not sensible, particularly in a year that includes a winter World Cup, where he will be anxious to help Portugal go far in the championship.
He added to his record in the Nations League match against Switzerland on Sunday, scoring his 116th and 117th international goals, and adding to that tally in Qatar will almost certainly be a given.
There’s no use in Ronaldo lacing up his boots for Thursday night football to keep him fresh for the Premier League — which is United’s first objective for the coming season — and the World Cup.
The winter World Cup is having an impact on the domestic calendar this season, with all six group matches in UEFA club tournaments falling between the first and second weeks of September and November.
The Premier League schedule has yet to be finalized, but it is expected to include practically continuous midweek action from September 1 through November 13, when the season will be paused to accommodate the World Cup.
Every manager will face difficulties in keeping their key players fresh, but if United are to benefit from being in the Europa League, Ten Hag will be able to make substitutions for the group stage games.
United’s intention to operate with a smaller team this season should provide opportunities for young players while also allowing players to relax. Ronaldo, at 37, should be towards the top of that list.
United’s focus must be finishing in the top four and returning to the Champions League, and Ronaldo’s goals will be crucial to that. Even at the age of 38, there may be a chance for the forward to add to his appearances in that tournament if that can be accomplished.