Real Madrid could still have a bright future without Cristiano Ronaldo
Sir Alex Ferguson once famously said he would not sell Real Madrid "a virus" when the Spanish club was attempting to lure Cristiano Ronaldo to the Spanish capital during the 2008-09 season. Eight years later, it seems the same virus could be the cure to Manchester United's ills, with the Portuguese superstar reportedly hankering after a move back to the Premier League.
Rumours surrounding Ronaldo's future remain nothing more than conjecture but a little fuel was added to the fire on Sunday when Spanish outlet AS ran a report claiming the player has instructed his agent, Jorge Mendes, to do "whatever it takes" to secure his passage to Old Trafford, quoting Sky Italia pundit Gianluca Di Marzio.
There will be no confirmation of Ronaldo's plans one way or the other while Portugal are at the Confederations Cup but it would be remiss of Real Madrid not to start considering the possibility. Unpalatable as it may seem to lose the most marketable star in world football, it may become less of a bitter pill the more it is chewed over in the Chamartin executive suite.
Ronaldo's minimum release clause is reportedly set at €1 billion, which is clearly a ludicrous starting point for any negotiation. In reality, less than a fifth of that would probably do the trick for a player who will celebrate his 33rd birthday halfway through the 2017-18 season, even if that player can conceivably perform at the highest level for another three or four years.
Setting aside the issue of David de Gea and the fact that Alvaro Morata would quite like to move to Manchester as well, Ronaldo will command a fee of somewhere in the region of €100m to €150m on his own. Where the bottom line is drawn depends on the willingness of the player to move and the extent to which heels are dug in on the Spanish side. If Ronaldo genuinely wants to quit the Bernabeu, Zinedine Zidane and club president Florentino Perez will not stand in his way and the latter will thoroughly enjoy holding United to ransom; it will be a brave employee who volunteers for fax machine detail at Old Trafford when that paperwork is going through.
A world-record fee for Ronaldo would also be a handy starting point to test Monaco's resolve over Kylian Mbappe. Two clubs have reportedly tabled bids north of €100m for the 18-year-old France sensation but it might take double that before Monaco president Dmitry Rybolovlev considers opening talks. Throw in the want-away Morata and a couple of fringe players -- Danilo seeming the most obvious sacrifice -- and Real Madrid could fund a move without mortgaging the house.
In view of the Premier League's performance record in the Champions League in recent years, it could be argued Real wouldn't be strengthening a direct rival in Europe by selling Ronaldo to United while stacking their own hand considerably at the same time.
Then there is the question of Marco Asensio. The Spanish sports dailies love a poll and throughout last season, the youngster was consistently voted as the player Madrid fans most wanted to see in a starting role despite his playing position requiring a necessary toe on Ronaldo's branded boots. Though he would never admit it, Perez was not the driving force behind Ronaldo's arrival at Real. His predecessor, Ramon Calderon, was the man who laid the groundwork but Asensio is a Perez pet project and as he proved last season with debut goals in every competition -- and a hat-trick for Spain at the under-21 Euros this week -- he is ready to step into anyone's size nines. Ronaldo, it is safe to assume, will not take being phased out at the Bernabeu in a spirit of cheerful philosophy.
Real fans have recovered from losing game-changing players before. The acrimonious departures of Iker Casillas and Raul Gonzalez were forgotten swiftly enough and as long as someone is banging in the goals Ronaldo will be consigned to memory as well. If that someone is a Spain international who idolized Zidane as a youth, so much the better.
The uncomfortable truth for Ronaldo is that despite his considerable efforts, he has never enjoyed the same adoration from the stands as any of his predecessors. Asensio finds himself with a rare opportunity to directly replace the most prolific scorer in Real Madrid history and to do so with a majority backing from the Bernabeu that would become a landslide if Ronaldo goes public.
If Perez can orchestrate a partnership between Asensio and Mbappe, El Presi can secure a legacy that in Ronaldo's case is partly tarnished by the involvement of Calderon. A forward line featuring three of Mbappe, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Asensio would represent an MBA in transfer expertise to adorn Perez's office wall. Ronaldo or no Ronaldo, the honours will surely follow.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.