Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag tried to shield Cristiano Ronaldo from criticism Friday after the forward left a preseason game early, and insisted that the Portugal star remains part of his plans for this season.
Ronaldo reportedly told United this offseason that he wanted to leave to play for a Champions League club and speculation about his mindset intensified when he was part of a group of players who left Old Trafford without permission before the end of Sunday's friendly against Rayo Vallecano.
Ten Hag initially said it was "unacceptable for everyone" to leave early, but was quick to point out Friday that Ronaldo shouldn't be singled out for criticism.
"There were many players who left, but the spotlight is on Cristiano and that is not right," Ten Hag said during a news conference ahead of United's season opener against Brighton on Sunday. "So I think then do your research and make out many players left, that was what was said. ... He was part of it. Again, there were a lot of players."
The 37-year-old Ronaldo returned to United from Real Madrid last year but couldn't help the team compete for trophies during a disappointing season when it finished sixth in the Premier League, 35 points behind champion Manchester City.
Ten Hag is entering his first season in charge and is keen to keep the five-time Ballon d'Or winner at the club, even though it's unclear how the forward fits into his tactical plans.
Ronaldo missed the preseason tour of Thailand and Australia due to a family issue but played the first 45 minutes against Rayo Vallecano.
Ten Hag wouldn't say whether the Portuguese will start against Brighton, but made it clear that he expects Ronaldo to be a key part of his team.
"I told you before, we plan with the season (with him). We have a top striker and I'm really happy he's here, he's in the squad and we stick to that plan," the Dutch coach said.
Ten Hag confirmed that Anthony Martial will miss Sunday's opener with a hamstring injury but remained coy on whether he expects the club to complete a deal for Dutch playmaker Frenkie de Jong before the end of the transfer window. United has brought in midfielder Christian Eriksen, and defenders Lisandro Martinez and Tyrell Malacia so far this offseason.
"I'm happy with the signings until now," Ten Hag said. "We don't just need any player, you need the right players and that's the point we're working on together."