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Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag has bitten back at reports focusing on Cristiano Ronaldo’s early exit from Old Trafford last Sunday. Ronaldo dominated the headlines after Ten Hag’s first (unofficial) home game as United boss, but he wasn’t the only first-team star to leave at half-time, and the Dutchman has now leapt to his defence.

The 37-year-old striker returned to action against Rayo Vallecano after missing the pre-season tour of Thailand, Australia and Oslo. He was withdrawn at half-time after getting 45 minutes under his belt as United went on the draw 1-1 with the La Liga outfit.

But Ronaldo caused a media storm after being spotted leaving Old Trafford during the second half, with current speculation surrounding his future only pouring fuel onto the fire. And in an interview with Viaplay in the aftermath, Ten Hag suggested he wasn’t the only one who exited the ground before full-time and labelled the behaviour ‘unacceptable’.

“There were more who did this [leave early],” Ten Hag explained, trying to shift the focus away from Ronaldo. “Absolutely not [I didn’t accept it]. This is unacceptable. I tell them this, that’s unacceptable. We are a team. We are a squad. You have to stay until the end.”

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During the pre-match press conference ahead of his first competitive game as United manager, Ten Hag slammed how the ordeal was reported. He urged those reporting on the matter to ‘do their research’ and insisted he’s delighted to have him as part of his squad for the 2022/23 season.

He told reporters: “Now I have to point out, there were many players who left, but the spotlight is on Cristiano [Ronaldo]. That is not right. Do your research and make out that many players left. We have a top striker; I’m really happy he’s here with the squad. We stick to the plan.”

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Ronaldo has reportedly been ‘excellent’ in training since the Rayo friendly as he bids to remain professional despite his desire to leave. And with Anthony Martial ruled out through injury, the Portuguese icon could make a surprise start against Brighton, despite being low on match sharpness.

Marcus Rashford could also start centrally, with Anthony Elanga or Christian Eriksen on the left. Or Ten Hag could opt for a false-nine system, which he used in a behind-closed-doors friendly against Wrexham last week, with Bruno Fernandes as the centre-piece.

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