Cristiano Ronaldo to Man United: Has Real Madrid star cried wolf too many times?
Manchester United are understandably wary about Cristiano Ronaldo's camp once again claiming that the Real Madrid star wants to return to Old Trafford -- although this time around it might actually be true.
Spanish newspaper AS reported on Monday's front page that Ronaldo feels betrayed by Madrid president Florentino Perez having reneged on a promise to improve his contract and his "priority" is now to return to United. A source close to Ronaldo told ESPN FC that the report was accurate.
This mirrors very closely the situation last summer, when Portuguese outlet A Bola first broke the news that Ronaldo wanted out of Madrid due to anger at tax fraud charges, and his advisors at Gestifute confirmed he was definitely leaving Spain with Manchester among the preferred destinations.
Not even that was the first time that the idea has surfaced of Ronaldo returning to United, where he scored 118 goals in 292 games between 2003 and 2009 and won seven trophies including a Champions League before leaving in a then world-record £80 million transfer.
Around the two legs of Madrid's Champions League semifinal against Manchester City in April 2016 there was plenty of English and Spanish media talk about how much he had enjoyed his time in England, and could potentially finish his career back at Old Trafford.
Coincidentally [or not] that was just when contract negotiations between Perez and Ronaldo's agent, Jorge Mendes, were also making very slow progress. A deal was finally reached the following September, which at the time made Ronaldo the best-paid player in world football.
In 2014, there was complimentary talk from Ronaldo when Madrid faced United in Michigan in the International Champions Cup. A few weeks later, United fans hired a plane to fly a "Come home Ronaldo" banner overhead as Madrid played a La Liga game at Villarreal.
So you can understand why, according to United sources consulted by ESPN FC, the English club reckon Ronaldo is merely trying to force a better deal out of Madrid. United's executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward has been burnt before by other Blancos players including Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale, and even Fabio Coentrao.
In Spain there is also widespread scepticism over whether a return to Manchester for Ronaldo could really happen. On Tuesday AS said United were unlikely to push for a deal considering the money involved -- a €100m fee and then, according to the paper, at least €50m a year in salary.
There is also widespread doubt over whether any other club will countenance these type of figures for a player who turns 33 in February. Independent statisticians make the case that Ronaldo is now only the 49th most valuable footballer on the planet. Last week Marca ran a "Boy Who Cried Wolf"-themed piece saying the Bernabeu hierarchy knew he and Mendes had no serious options to move elsewhere, with Paris Saint-Germain said to be just as disinterested as United at this stage of his career.
According to Portuguese paper Record on Tuesday, Perez has given carte blanche to Ronaldo and Mendes to present him with proposals for an exit, although without setting a value at which he would agree to sell. This suggests the canny businessman knows that the exit plea is a bluff which he can call.
It is possible that, from Ronaldo's point of view, things are actually different this time around. He is clearly unhappy with a lack of appreciation at the Bernabeu. Not even 422 goals in 418 games has made him universally popular with Madrid fans, who have regularly whistled the club's record goal scorer through recent years. Just four goals so far in La Liga this season has not helped his case either.
The relationship with Perez has always been uneasy, but now appears to have totally broken down. The Blancos president's public flirting with Neymar, even on the night last December his own team's star won the Ballon d'Or, must have been hard to take.
Ronaldo also does seem to have taken the tax issue remarkably personally. While teammates including Luka Modric and Marcelo have recently settled with the authorities, he continues to fight his case and feel personally victimised -- even if evidence suggests otherwise. Leaked footage from his tax trial last summer showed him telling the judge that "I have never had problems in England and that's why... I would like to return there."
You can also understand Ronaldo's personal frustration that, although 2017 saw him win pick up a fifth career Ballon d'Or, second consecutive FIFA The Best Men's Player award and a third UEFA player of the season prize, both Lionel Messi and Neymar overtook him in the personal earnings stakes. If it really were possible that United would pay him what he feels he is worth, then he might need little persuading to move.
The "Boy Who Cried Wolf" idea could well be fitting. Aesop's fable ends with a real wolf actually appearing, but the villagers do not believe the boy this time, and nobody answers his cry for help.
A culmination of factors means Ronaldo might actually be ready to leave Madrid now, and feel that he would be more appreciated at Old Trafford. However, past behaviour from the player and his advisors means that now, when he is actually open to a return, no one at Old Trafford will take the risk to try and make the deal happen. If that is the case they only have themselves to blame.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan