MANCHESTER, England — Cristiano Ronaldo kept Manchester United’s hopes of qualifying for next season’s Champions League alive on the pitch on Saturday, but that aside the 3-2 win over Norwich City came amid further unrest among fans set.
The day ended with United three points closer to the top four thanks to Ronaldo’s hat-trick – his 19th, 20th and 21st goals of the season – and defeats to Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. But while Antonio Conte and Mikel Arteta were busy shooting themselves in the foot, United fans protested outside the entrance to the directors’ box at Old Trafford, chanting “We want Glazers out” and “Sack the board”. The anti-Glaser songs continued throughout the afternoon: “Get Up If You Hate Glazer” and other more expletive versions.
“We are working hard to set the stage for renewed success on the pitch while strengthening our commitment to the fans,” a United spokesman said in a statement to the protests. “We respect the right of fans to peacefully express their opinions and we will continue to listen to them with the aim of working together to bring the club back to where we all want them to be: fighting for trophies.”
The fans who stayed out for the first 17 minutes – one minute for every year Glazer possessed – missed Ronaldo’s first goal after seven minutes but saw his stunning free-kick hit the post midway through the second half to save Ralf Rangnicks team barely took advantage of their rivals’ slip-ups. It’s not so much a race to finish in the top four as it is a slow crawl.
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“We shouldn’t have to rely on Ronaldo,” Rangnick said afterwards. “Defensively, I wasn’t happy at all. The results elsewhere were good, but it doesn’t make sense to look at other results. We need to improve our game.
“It was very important that we won but the way we played wasn’t good enough. It’s a matter of intensity and physicality. Like against Tottenham, Ronaldo was very decisive. Those weren’t easy goals , it was just amazing.”
United’s next two games are trips to Liverpool and Arsenal.
“If we want to get points in these games we have to raise our level and do our best,” added Rangnick.
Whatever happens between now and the end of the season, this summer promises a fresh start of sorts with a new manager – likely Erik ten Hag – and more money being pumped into the squad, but for the majority of fans there may not be a new era start until the Glazers leave.
In the nine years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have all tried and failed to restore the club as a significant force in the Premier League and Champions League establish. The fear is that Ten Hag will run into the same old problems and Joel Glazer will be looking for another new manager in a year or two. Mourinho in particular came with a much more impressive CV than Ten Hag and still couldn’t make it work.
The idea behind appointing Ajax manager instead of, say, Mauricio Pochettino is that he has the talent to become one of the best in the world, but that potential is unlikely to be realized if a club clipped his wings that works behind the scenes not right. He will have enough problems on the pitch.
Norwich’s two goals, scored by Kieran Dowell and Teemu Pukki, were so gentle they only added to the anger already seething at Old Trafford. After Pukki’s goal to make it 2-2, some fans started chanting, “You’re not fit to wear the jersey.”
The decision to replace Paul Pogba was initially met with loud cheers and then boos as the Frenchman started walking away. As he took his seat on the bench, fans started chanting “F—off Pogba” and you can understand the frustration of a player who has repeatedly said he wants to leave and is six weeks away from going with go away on a free transfer . Full-time, he managed to make things worse by putting his ear towards the Stretford End.
“I didn’t hear it myself, but I was informed after the game,” said Rangnick. “I can totally understand the frustration of the fans, as do we, but I don’t think they should take on individual players. I don’t think that’s right or right.”
United’s already gaping hole in midfield was demonstrated by Rangnick’s decision to start with Pogba, Bruno Fernandes and Jesse Lingard. Pogba and Lingard are out of contract in the summer and Nemanja Matic, who came on as a second-half substitute, announced on Friday that he will also leave at the end of the season.
Ten Hag needs at least one midfielder in the summer, but he probably thinks the same about centre-backs, full-backs and centre-forwards. It won’t be an easy rebuild and there’s still a long way to go back to the top. By now, most fans believe the journey can’t even begin until the owners are gone.