He's gone but far from forgotten. Indeed, many believe he will be a haunting, ghost-like presence as Manchester United slip from the level that brought them three straight titles – and a high degree of disbelief that they were all but unrecognisable when they failed to make a serious show of defending their Champions League crown against Barcelona in Rome a few months ago.
But do we really expect United to dwindle as critically in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo as the England Test team did when Andrew Flintoff went missing?
Not here. We don't because if the gifts that Ronaldo took with him to Real Madrid when he eventually decamped are self-evident, so too were the weaknesses. The question is thus quite basic. Can Sir Alex Ferguson compensate for the loss of Ronaldo's extraordinary virtuosity, his utterly exceptional potency in front of goal, with the fact that he now has a squad – still arguably the strongest in England – required to stand up and answer questions about themselves which were too easily avoided in the wake of the Ronaldo caravan?
However erratic Ronaldo's level of performance, however divisive his body language, however many times he excused himself from some of the obligations of a wholly committed professional, United remained largely the Ronaldo show. This inevitably had some negative impact, and on no one more than the player around whom United must build their best hopes for the new season.
There were times when Wayne Rooney became nothing so much as a Ronaldo acolyte, someone assigned duties that were often some way from perfectly tailored to his best chances of making an impact more in line with his own extraordinary ability – talent, which, we surely know by now, can in the right circumstances be just as luminous as that of Ronaldo.
The theory here is that Ferguson's supreme genius as a manager is the business of renewal, of reseeding, of doing these vital things without any loss of the game's ultimate imperative, to keep winning, to keep fighting. It has meant that since he laid down the first foundations of his amazing empire in the mid-Eighties a new and vibrant life has come to Old Trafford in one wave after another. Why will this process suddenly crash down? Is Ronaldo so unique that a great club's destiny is shot through the moment he walks out of the door?
It is an insulting premise. Yes, of course, there are areas of concern. Michael Carrick has to regain the authority that was such a huge factor for United in the first half of last season. Anderson, a bewilderingly anonymous figure against Barça's exquisite midfield in Rome, is playing for his career as a front-rank operator. Nani still looks a long way from a consistent force. But then it is not such a stretch of memory to recall when Ferguson was thought to have committed hara-kiri when he brought in his young lions to replace the team of Hughes and Ince. Ferguson found life after Cantona and Keane, the two most influential players in his regime before the advent of David Beckham's replacement Ronaldo, and it is by no means an outlandish instinct to believe that resurrection will come again.
Ferguson has, after all, some arresting young talent in the margins of the team, players like Federico Macheda, Zoran Tosic and the leggy Danny Welbeck. Michael Owen is bound to contribute goals and it is not so fanciful to imagine that Dimitar Berbatov will indeed benefit from a little second-season bounce.
Most of all, though, there are the widening horizons of Rooney as he builds towards a central role in next year's World Cup. Rooney is truculent and still operates on a
disturbingly short fuse. However, he is by some distance the most talented native-born player – at least until we know better the development curve of Arsenal's precocious teenager
Jack Wilshere – and if United have been assailed for their failure to spend significantly it is not as though the dressing room lacks evidence of investment.
The Rooney dividend may never be more spectacular than in the next few months. Nor, perhaps, a strengthened team concept at Old Trafford. It is no doubt true that the value of Ronaldo was grasped well enough among the United players, but it is also not hard to recall those times when his self-absorption also brought dismay.
Antonio Valencia is not Cristiano Ronaldo but nor is he exactly devoid of fine skill and obvious whole-|heartedness. It is a combination of qualities that, in the current situation, could have a value potentially soaring beyond a mere £17m.
In the end the disposition and the motivation of players is invariably the most vital factor. Ferguson knows about this. So, of course, does his most serious rival this season – Carlo Ancelotti. Yet the widespread belief that the Italian will become the first manager to challenge Ferguson effectively since Jose Mourinho in the title race is not so easy to understand.
Ancelotti inherits a most powerful squad, no doubt, and his achievements cannot be easily discounted. Yet despite two Champions League wins in his eight-year reign at Milan, he has not exactly been in his pomp these last few years. Despite talent of the order of Kaka and Ronaldinho and Seedorf, Ancelotti's Milan could do nothing to wrench away the |four-year domination of Serie A by a strong but scarcely inspiring Internazionale.
At Chelsea, Ancelotti has to operate between the whims of
Roman Abramovich and the entrenched, self-indulgent culture of a dressing room that was taken on successfully only by the now legendary touch of Guus Hiddink. A seamless progression under Ancelotti is surely less than guaranteed.
It means that the hunch here is that United will again emerge successfully, with Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool contending for second place.
Arsenal? Yes. Once again they present themselves as the representatives of the beautiful game. They also have the most exciting contender for Footballer of the Year: Andrei Arshavin.
Such projections may provoke rage at Stamford Bridge and Anfield, where Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, and Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, respectively, finished their seasons with such vigour, but the truth is as always.
A new season has to be made with fresh force, fresh ambition and, supremely, the most exceptional talent.
The man from St Petersburg is apparently filled with all three. So too, still, you have to suspect, is the old battler from Govan who runs Manchester United.Reuse content