Sunday 23 October 2016

Five-star Ronaldo back to his best

Ian Hawkey

Published 14/09/2015 | 02:30

Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring the first of his five goals against Espanyol
Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring the first of his five goals against Espanyol

Did he still have it? That burst of speed, the poise and precision when confronted, one against one, with an advancing goalkeeper?

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As he closed in on an inviting chance, one of the modern game's great goalscorers knew that among those watching, there would be doubts about his capacity to produce the right finish. Here was the moment to silence them, the score locked at 0-0. A long through-ball had landed kindly for him. He had time to look up, calculate his angles, before he spied out of the corner of his eye, a younger, quick defender rapidly catching up on him.

Of course he scored, picked his spot neatly, and if the pace at which he had steered himself to the best shooting position was not quite that of his early 20s, the old instincts were vividly recognisable. But enough about Fernando Torres' first goal of his 15th season as a senior professional, the opener in a 2-1 defeat against Barcelona for his Atletico Madrid. The weekend's big ice-breaker goals were those from Espanyol versus Real Madrid.

How Torres must have chuckled to himself over the last couple of weeks, listening to all the stern analyses in Spain about how great goalscorers cope with barren spells, overcome famines and droughts, and hearing experts opine on the doubts, real or imagined, that afflict strikers when they enter their 30s.


It was not Torres, 31, who had been the subject of all this, but Cristiano Ronaldo, and his mysterious case of goallessness. Ahead of the weekend, Ronaldo had registered a blank through four club and international matches.

He had scored just once in nine, including pre-season friendlies. It could look stark if you put it a certain way: he hit 48 Liga goals in 35 games in 2014-15; the 30-year-old had none in 2015-16.

Saturday's Marca, Spain's biggest-selling daily, bluntly referred to "Cristiano's crisis". No goals in 180 Liga minutes a crisis? Somewhere in that newspaper's archive must be the far more powerful word they used to describe Torres' no league goals in 180 days, the run endured by the former £50million centre-forward last season, stretched across his wretched spell at AC Milan, where Chelsea offloaded him, and his first few weeks at Atletico, the club he rejoined in January.

Ronaldo's so-called 'crisis' ended abruptly, when he received Luka Modric's long through-ball, and gave no thought to those who wondered whether he really had lost his finishing skills. Ronaldo eased a shot, left to right, across goalkeeper Pau Lopez. That was seven minutes after kick-off.

After another six, he converted a penalty. He had his hat-trick before the match was 21 minutes old. By nine minutes from full-time, he had five. He had set up Karim Benzema's strike, too, in the 6-0 parade.

Whenever Ronaldo has days like this, milestones are passed, although soon the only ones left will be those that Lionel Messi has recently established, so far ahead are these two of other record-breakers. Ronaldo's third goal zipped him beyond Alfredo di Stefano's 227 Liga goals. His fourth elbowed Raul into second place among Real Madrid's all-time league marksmen.

Some context: Di Stefano whizzed to his total between 1953 and 1966. Ronaldo has taken half that time, having just embarked on his seventh season in Spain. Raul spread his 228 Liga goals over 550 matches. Ronaldo has crammed his 230 goals into just 203 fixtures.

"The figures speak for themselves," said Rafa Benitez, the fourth Madrid coach to benefit from Ronaldo's finishing. His first goal was vintage Ronaldo, attacking from the left, and the third displayed some textbook target-man work, holding off markers to volley in. Benitez has indicated to Ronaldo he wants to see him taking up centre-forward positions regularly, while Gareth Bale and Benzema move freely into wider territory.

Whether he was Madrid's best player at Espanyol is open to argument. Bale's involvement in the moves leading up to five of the six goals made an alternative case.

Two of the Welshman's crosses led to goals; the spot-kick had been awarded when Espanyol's Alvaro Gonzalez interrupted a menacing Bale run. Ronaldo had plenty for which to thank him.

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