Sky Sports pundits Paul Merson and Roy Keane have disagreed over Erik ten Hag’s decision to leave Cristiano Ronaldo out of his squad for Manchester United’s Premier League meeting with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner has been at the centre of widespread controversy this week after leaving the Red Devils’ bench and walking off down the tunnel at Old Trafford before the final whistle in Wednesday evening’s 2-0 win over Tottenham. As a response, Ten Hag made the call to omit the 37-year-old from his travelling contingent this weekend.
Reflecting on the decision during Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday, former Arsenal midfielder Merson argued that the Dutch manager had done the right thing by making a statement with his disciplinary action.
He said: “He’s just shot himself in the foot now, Ronaldo. He [Ten Hag] was under pressure to play Ronaldo, he didn’t want to play him in the team. He’s come on against Everton, scored a great goal, don’t play. He doesn’t want him in the team. Now that’s taken all away. He [Ten Hag] has the easiest job in the world now.
“He [Ronaldo] won’t be happy, but Ten Hag won’t care. He’s set an example now. These young lads will be sat going ‘wow, he’s just done that to Cristiano Ronaldo’. It sends an unbelievable message to the lads. [If Ronaldo had left in the summer] The fans would have gone mad - they won’t now.”
Addressing the incident during the pre-match build-up to this evening’s clash, however, Keane spoke out in defence of his former teammate - and questioned the wisdom of Ten Hag wielding the axe.
He said: “I try and see it from the player’s point of view. He’s obviously had enough, he’s lost his head, and I think it’s been brewing for the last few weeks with Ronaldo. I will still try and defend him. I still think he’s a human being, he’s got flaws, he’s frustrated that he’s not been getting opportunities, and he’s had enough.
“He’s walked down the tunnel. I think players have done a lot worse things at Manchester United. I think it happens, it’s human nature. Everyone was talking after the game; they beat Spurs, it was a big win, best performance in years. Absolute rubbish - Spurs were terrible. Manchester United managed to beat Spurs last year as well at home and Ronaldo got a hat-trick. So he’s more than capable of getting on that pitch and making a difference.
“But he has to take his punishment. Is there a way back for him? I’m not sure. But I’d be more worried if Ronaldo was sat on the bench every week and not caring. I think that he cares. This game is full of bluffers, and he’s certainly not one of them. I think he cares about the club - he wants to play, he needs to play.”
The ex-United captain added: “They asked the manager in his press conference over the past few days, and obviously Ronaldo refused to go on, but they should ask him when he was going to put him on. Late in the game, with two or three minutes to go? I’m not too sure that was a clever move.”