Now even Cristiano Ronaldo's girlfriend is all of a tizz about whether her man's future lies in Manchester or Madrid. "I don't know what he's going to do," Nereida Gallardo said yesterday, when one of the countless Spanish journalists who have gathered for a scent of the player at Portugal's Neuchâtel base, near Geneva, posed the all-important question.
She might be uncertain but perhaps everyone else who is feeling an emotional attachment to Ronaldo and Manchester United should stop swooning and think the unthinkable: that it is actually time to be done with it and let Ronaldo go. No, Old Trafford won't be the same for a while when he's taken his quiff and his red boots out of town. There is an unmitigated thrill about the player's style for all who observe United – and for those writers who linger in the players' tunnel in search of the thoughts of a player or two on European nights, he is the one who will stop while others march on, even if the net result rarely departs from his belief that "I can get better and better". Consider the mind-boggling sums of money being talked of, though. A prevailing view in Madrid has it that Real president Ramon Calderon is ready to embark on a €100m (£78m) project to bring the player to the Bernabeu and has made it clear to Ronaldo's advisers that he will not come looking again. Even the more realistic figure of £45m would enable Sir Alex Ferguson to replace Ronaldo – at £12m David Bentley would be a fine prospect – and find the striker he so badly needs. Dimitar Berbatov at £30m suddenly starts to look affordable, or else Lyon's prodigious Karim Benzema, who would probably be in a similar bracket. They might actually appreciate being in Manchester, too, which Ronaldo patently doesn't.
United's chief executive, David Gill, indicated yesterday that the club's fans could "expect something" in the transfer department when the European Championship are concluded but do not let it be said that United's transfer kitty is a bottomless pit. This is a club, remember, which made losses of £58m last year after the £42m in interest was repaid on the loans the Glazer family took out to buy the club in 2005. Ronaldo will never fetch a better price for Gill. Just moving into his prime at 23, injury-free and the source of such giddy excitement that no-one has quite got down to analysing his faults yet. One missed penalty (in Barcelona) was an aberration; a second (in Moscow) a coincidence; one more will start to look like a fraility.
Who has woken up to the fact he has still not truly delivered in times of adversity? Not many. That first-half and headed goal in Moscow do not make up a case for the defence. When Chelsea tightened things in the second half he was back in the shadows. Ronaldo is at his apotheosis because a mesmerised world still only has eyes for his delights – the outrageous backheel through Martin Laursen's legs against Villa in March and the free kick whose swerve defied physics against Portsmouth two months earlier.
Ms Gallardo – a Spaniard, lest it be overlooked – is not the only individual who might just feel more settled by the player moving out to Madrid, either. Wayne Rooney, who does not tend to invite comparisons with models too often, has just completed a season during which, for the first time since he burst on to the scene at Everton six years ago, he has failed to exceed his previous season's goal tally. It is down to form and fitness but also to the place he has assumed in Ronaldo's shadow. Rooney has become the midfielder, left-winger, chief cook and bottlewasher while his team-mate shines. If Ronaldo leaves, he might just emerge and flourish too. United owe him the attention. Rooney is the man who has said this season that it will probably be United for life for him.
Gill was attempting to deflect away questions about Ronaldo yesterday when he said that it was of no consequence that the player would probably not be on the club's tour of South Africa and Nigeria next month. "We are Manchester United, champions of Europe," he said. Quite so. A club far, far bigger than one young man.
Filling famous boots: Who to sign if Ronaldo goes
Hatem Ben Arfa, 21 Lyons & France
Predominantly a left winger, will be fancied should Ronaldo leave. Along with Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema, one of a trio of youngsters offering French fans hope for the future.
David Bentley, 23 Blackburn & England
Touted as David Beckham's England replacement, has blossomed at Ewood Park after failing to make the grade at Arsenal.
Ricardo Quaresma, 24 Porto & Portugal
Comfortable on either wing, regularly compared with Ronaldo and will offer a like-for-like replacement. Porto will not listen to offers under €40m (£31.6).Reuse content