Thursday 8 December 2016

Ronaldo facing up to Madrid end game

Clasico curtain call beckons as falling-out with supporters and PSG interest spell end

Oliver Brown

Published 02/04/2016 | 02:30

Cristiano Ronaldo gestures during training Real Madrid's training session yesterday ahead of tonight's Clasico (REUTERS/Sergio Perez)
Cristiano Ronaldo gestures during training Real Madrid's training session yesterday ahead of tonight's Clasico (REUTERS/Sergio Perez)

For Cristiano Ronaldo, who broke off a training session in Portugal this week to show his team-mates a few questionable dance moves, tonight's Clasico could be his last waltz.

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He has graced 24 instalments of club football's grandest showpiece, scoring 15 times - a record matching that of his nemesis, Lionel Messi - but the drumbeat heralding his imminent departure from Real Madrid is becoming too noisy to ignore.

Already he is reported to have put his sprawling home in Madrid's exclusive La Finca district up for sale, reviving the prospect of a melodramatic summer move to Paris Saint-Germain.

The resolve and resources of PSG's Qatari owners, preparing to lose their marquee star in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, are not in question as they continue their audacious pursuit of Ronaldo. Nor is the player's own fractious relationship with Real supporters, after he endured the indignity of being booed in a league match against Celta Vigo last month.

His standing at the Bernabeu has never been quite the same since he claimed, in a fit of pique after a defeat by city rivals Atletico, in February: "If everyone was at my level, perhaps we would be first."

Petulant

Throw in his petulant agitation against former manager Rafael Benitez, who refused to stroke his ego by describing him as the best player in the team, and it has hardly been an impeccable display of grace from Ronaldo this season. True, he has contributed a typically astonishing 41 goals, but an impression persists that Real president Florentino Perez, who is determined to structure the future of this team far more around Gareth Bale than Ronaldo, would sell if the offer from PSG was eye-watering enough.

For the individual brilliance does not equate nearly often enough to collective glory. A haul of seven trophies in seven years pales against the 18 that Messi has amassed at Barcelona in the same period.

In those 24 contests with the Catalans, he has won just six. And in the most recent confrontation, a 4-0 defeat in Madrid that sealed Benitez's demise, he was anonymous.

Ronaldo's only hope of augmenting his silverware this year lies in the Champions League, given that Barca look out of sight in La Liga with a 10-point lead.

The much-vaunted attacking triumvirate of Ronaldo, Bale and Karim Benzema has a habit of not firing for Real on Clasico nights. The team have never beaten Barcelona with the three of them on the pitch together. For Ronaldo, any chance of establishing a Clasico legacy worthy of his historic career is ebbing painfully away. The one winner that he did provide, at the Nou Camp in 2012, seems an awfully long time ago.

Zinedine Zidane has offered some signs since his appointment as Benitez's replacement in January that he can help unearth Ronaldo's genius on the greatest stages. An exquisitely taken goal by the Portuguese at Roma, for instance, in the first knockout phase of the Champions League, proved decisive.

Tonight is the type of occasion that a double act as stellar as Zidane and Ronaldo should be made for. Zidane hardly wants for incentives, mindful that the result will go a long way towards determining his managerial prospects under Perez. There is also the baggage of his personal history with Luis Enrique, his opposite number at Barcelona, to consider: the two had a fierce run-in during this match in 2003, when Zidane pushed his adversary in the face as a mass brawl erupted. Just as Enrique unlocked the secret to Barcelona's treble in 2015 by creating a system that best suited Messi, the Frenchman knows that his overwhelming priority is to bring Ronaldo to the boil when it matters most.

There has been a tendency of late for his goals to arrive in clusters, at the expense of threadbare opposition: five against Espanyol, four against Vigo, but nothing in the pivotal showdowns with Barcelona or Atletico.

Implication

Zidane has declared Ronaldo to be the "soul of the team". It was a conscious ploy to distinguish himself from Benitez, who did not do enough to make the three-time Ballon d'Or winner feel loved. The implication was that Ronaldo was an untouchable, a non-transferable property, but a second straight trophy-less campaign could yet render that theory redundant.

It would be refreshing if, this evening, he could dovetail more selflessly with Bale and Benzema.

If this is to be his Clasico curtain call, he owes it to himself to produce a rousing final statement. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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Telegraph.co.uk

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