Ronaldo's replacement, Maguire, Sancho & the six questions Manchester United must answer after the World Cup break
Manchester United went into the World Cup break on a high thanks to Argentina wonderkid Alejandro Garnacho, whose last-minute winner at Fulham ensured that they sit just three points outside the top four with a game in hand.
Returning to the Champions League is the priority for Erik ten Hag's side but the season will ultimately be a failure if he cannot deliver the club's first major trophy since 2017.
The Premier League title is already out of reach, but the Europa League, FA Cup and League Cup remain up for grabs, and United have the tools to go all the way in all three competitions.
Ten Hag has a few crucial questions to answer first, however, including how to move on from a certain Cristiano Ronaldo.
GOAL looks at the huge task facing the Dutchman below...
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How do United replace Ronaldo?
Ding dong, the brat is gone! Ronaldo seemingly got what he wanted after slamming Ten Hag, United's youngsters and the board in his now infamous interview with Piers Morgan.
Supporters were left heartbroken after the Portuguese star's first Old Trafford exit in 2009, but few were unhappy to see the back of him this time around. United took the necessary decision to terminate the 37-year-old's contract and Ten Hag has already insisted Ronaldo is "in the past".
However, the United boss has also acknowledged that they need to fill the void left by the forward's exit. "We would do everything in our power [to sign a replacement] if the opportunity is there [to do so]," he said during the club's winter camp.
Ten Hag refused to comment on links to PSV star Cody Gakpo, who was the Netherlands' star performer at Qatar 2022, but he has made it clear he is open to a switch to Old Trafford and, at just 23 years old, would represent a smart investment for both the present and the future.
At the other end of the age spectrum, Tottenham captain Harry Kane (29) has also been mooted as a potential target. The England man would guarantee a boost in Premier League goals, but it remains to be seen whether Spurs would negotiate with a top-four rival. Daniel Levy wouldn't sell Kane to Manchester City last summer, so why would United this winter be any different?
As the ultimate insult to Ronaldo, United could even go for Benfica striker Goncalo Ramos, who scored a stunning hat-trick for Portugal at the World Cup after replacing the Seleccao skipper in Fernando Santos' starting XI.
However, Napoli's Victor Osimhen may be the best fit for the role. The 23-year-old has enjoyed a prolific run of form for the Serie A leaders since returning from injury, and boasts superb spatial awareness when it comes to getting in behind defences. The Nigerian would thrive on the quality service from Bruno Fernandes and Christian Eriksen. The one problem, though: Napoli will demand over £100m for their most prized possession.
Does Maguire deserve his starting spot back?
Like Ronaldo, Harry Maguire's future at Old Trafford was also very much up in the air heading into the World Cup.
The United captain has been reduced to a bench role since Ten Hag's appointment, with summer signing Lisandro Martinez taking his spot alongside Raphael Varane in the heart of the defence.
Gareth Southgate stuck by Maguire, though, and the England manager was vindicated as the centre-back rediscovered his best level during the Three Lions' run to the World Cup quarter-finals.
The 28-year-old was colossal alongside John Stones as the Three Lions recorded three clean sheets in five games, and although he was powerless to prevent France's Olivier Giroud from knocking them out, his reputation has been restored.
Maguire's performances will certainly have given Ten Hag something to think about. If nothing else, the Dutch tactician is now more likely to trust him as the first man off the bench ahead of Victor Lindelof.
The fact is, though, Varane and Maguire as a partnership clearly doesn't work, as United found out last season. In the handful of games Maguire has played alongside Martinez in 2022-23, they have endured similar compatibility issues.
If Varane and Martinez both stay fit, Maguire will likely have to continue accepting a role on the bench, which also means his days as permanent captain will be numbered.
The England star might be wise to consider his options, as there would surely be no shortage of potential suitors if he were to leave Manchester in 2023. Maguire has proven that he's still a top defender, but his talents may be best served by a move elsewhere, perhaps in a less pressurised environment.
Does Sancho have a long-term future at United?
Southgate may have trusted Maguire to deliver for England despite a lack of club minutes, but he did not afford the same privilege to his United team-mate Jadon Sancho.
The 22-year-old has recorded just eight goals and four assists in 52 appearances since his £72m ($87m) move from Borussia Dortmund in July 2021.
Two of those goals came in the opening weeks of the current campaign as it briefly looked as though Sancho had turned a corner, but it proved to be a false dawn.
The England international has mostly played a bit-part role under Ten Hag and finds himself below the likes of Marcus Rashford, Antony, and even Garnacho, in the pecking order.
Ten Hag took drastic action during the World Cup break, recommending that Sancho did not take part in friendly fixtures against Cadiz and Real Betis. United released a statement confirming his absence, which read: ''Jadon Sancho is continuing his individual training programme as part of a process to get back to his highest level. The club is fully supporting him in this."
If United do indeed manage to sign another attacker in January, Sancho's chances of playing regularly will reduce even further. The former Dortmund star is still under contract until 2026, but his long-term future is now very much in doubt.
Sancho emerged as one of the most exciting young talents in Europe while in Germany, but time is running out for him to deliver on that potential at Old Trafford. The second half of the season could be make-or-break.
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Who should partner Casemiro in midfield?
Casemiro also arrived at Old Trafford in the summer along with Martinez, Eriksen and Antony, and after a slow start to life in Manchester, has shown that he remains one of the best midfielders in the business.
The Brazilian has nailed down one of the two holding roles in Ten Hag's XI and added much-needed steel to United's engine room.
The Red Devils had been lacking a physically imposing enforcer capable of breaking up play in the middle of the park while also driving the team forward, and Casemiro has well and truly plugged that gap.
The 30-year-old's tenacity and will to win are unrivalled, and his continued presence will be vital if United are to achieve their lofty goals for the season.
Ten Hag has yet to settle on a preferred midfielder partner for Casemiro, though, as his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation has seen Eriksen, Fred and Scott McTominay rotated in alongside the former Real Madrid man.
Fred and McTominay are both capable performers, but one of the main criticisms of United in recent years has been their insistence on playing two defensively-minded players in midfield.
Ten Hag has the opportunity to buck that trend by deploying Eriksen, who has already proven to be the perfect foil for Casemiro in United's wins over Everton, West Ham and Fulham.
If United stick with that pairing then they will have the perfect blend of aggression and creativity to help them dominate games, as well as become an even more effective counter-attacking outfit.
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Can United find consistency to underpin progress?
After opening their latest campaign with shocking defeats against Brighton and Brentford, United embarked on a four-game winning run which included the scalps of Liverpool and Arsenal.
The streak was broken by Manchester City as United suffered a 6-3 derby loss, and they have since failed to secure any further back-to-back wins in the Premier League.
As a result, Ten Hag's team are languishing 11 points behind leaders Arsenal after 14 games and will surely not be in the title mix in the second half of the season. Their chances of Champions League qualification remain very much alive, but that could soon change if they fail to develop a consistent streak.
Ten Hag has given the club a distinctive style for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson's exit and, in doing so, has reconnected with a disillusioned fanbase that has been starved of success for nigh-on a decade.
However, the United faithful's patience will run out if the erratic results continue. The next step for Ten Hag is to make the necessary adjustments game-to-game, to turn those disappointing draws, and losses into wins.
The 52-year-old hasn't always made full use of the Premier League's new five-substitution limit and it has been suggested that he is often too conservative with his choices off the bench.
He has also yet to nail down his first-choice XI, and a more bold, confident approach could reap immediate rewards for United as they move toward the business end of the season.
How do United avoid World Cup hangover?
Casemiro, Antony, Fred, Fernandes, Diogo Dalot, Maguire, Luke Shaw, Marcus Rashford and Tyrell Malacia all starred at the 2022 World Cup before suffering heart-breaking quarter-final exits.
Brazil, Portugal, England and the Netherlands were sent packing, but Varane and Martinez went all the way until the final, for France and Argentina, respectively.
Having so many key players go so far at Qatar 2022 was certainly not ideal for Ten Hag, who will have a selection dilemma on his hands when United resume their campaign with a last-16 League Cup tie against Burnley on December 21.
He was forced to field youngsters in the friendlies against Cadiz and Betis, but the Red Devils lost both games and cannot afford a repeat performance with a quarter-final berth up for grabs.
A strong, experienced line-up will be needed to see off Championship leaders Burnley at Old Trafford, meaning Ten Hag will have no choice but to play at least a few of the World Cup returnees.
He will also need to strike a fine balance, though, as any injuries could derail their chances of getting straight back to winning ways when they resume their Premier League schedule at home to Nottingham Forest six days later.
So, while United were lucky to avoid any major injuries at the World Cup, Manchester United's manager still has plenty of selection issues to resolve going into this most hectic of festive fixture lists.