Monday 19 February 2018

Unleashing Ronaldo key to Real hopes

Cristiano Ronaldo is all alone with his thoughts as he sits on a bench before training with Real Madrid yesterday ahead of tonight's clash with Barcelona. Photo: AP
Cristiano Ronaldo is all alone with his thoughts as he sits on a bench before training with Real Madrid yesterday ahead of tonight's clash with Barcelona. Photo: AP

Pete Jensen in BARCELONA

Barcelona fans shared a joke earlier in the season at Cristiano Ronaldo's expense.

In a photo montage passed between supporters, Ronaldo and Leo Messi are being interviewed together and when the Real Madrid player tells the interviewer: "God told me I was put on earth to entertain people," Messi replies: "I told him nothing of the sort."

The two best players in the world have scored more than 100 goals between them this season, and neither deserved to be part of last week's Champions League abomination.

But, while Messi was the god who restored everyone's faith in football, Ronaldo was again the mere mortal. The man who, barring a miracle tonight, will have to watch his nemesis face Manchester United in the Champions League final.

Listening to the Jose Mourinho apologists last week -- and there were some -- it would have been easy to believe the semi-final first leg had actually been an English FA Cup fifth-round tie in which he had led a group of part-timers to within minutes of a famous goalless draw.

Plucky little Madrid and their £400m squad had done their best to bully Barcelona out of their stride. Mourinho's tactics were justified, his supporters said, because "no one can compete with Barca".

Ronaldo's heart must sink every time he hears such talk -- every time someone says: "Of course Mourinho wouldn't play like this if he was Barcelona coach with Messi at his disposal."

Behind that image of Madrid's 51-goal forward turning to his team-mates in the first half and protesting at their reluctance to cross the halfway line to pressure Barcelona defenders lies an uncomfortable truth -- they were probably carrying out orders; he probably wasn't.

That, and the revealing post-match admission that he did not like the tactics but felt he had to adapt to them, contributed to Ronaldo's omission from last Saturday's league match against lowly Zaragoza.

And as he canoodled in the stands with girlfriend Irina Shayk, Madrid capitulated without him -- they have lost two home games this season and on both occasions Mourinho, in his wisdom, had decided to rest his talisman.

He'll start tonight's match and, unless there is a repeat of the curious tactic of waiting until the last 20 minutes to attack -- the botched masterplan from the first leg -- then Ronaldo will be back in a four-man forward line going for goals.

Whatever happens tonight, Ronaldo's second season has been an improvement on his first. When the dust settles from the campaign's five Clasicos, he will be able to take heart from the towering extra-time header that won the Spanish Cup for Madrid, his first trophy since joining.

And the relationship with his manager has been, for the most part, good. Players love Mourinho more than anything because they win medals with him and, true to form, the coach who has been winning at least one trophy a season since 2003 has delivered.

But Ronaldo will also take a certain frustration with him if tonight's game follows the pattern of the first leg. "I would like the chance to play against 10 men," he snapped when asked about Messi's goals last week.

What he stopped short of saying, but hinted at when he said he had not liked the team's negative tactics, was that he would also like to play in a side that throws the same caution to the wind as Barcelona.

Those making the defence for Mourinho after the first leg claimed he could not possibly have gone toe-to-toe with the Spanish champions as that would have resulted in the same 5-0 scoreline that his team suffered last November.

Yet, just a week earlier, Real Madrid had done exactly that in the Spanish Cup final and, courtesy of Ronaldo's first goal in open play against Barca, won the Copa del Rey.

Having approached the first leg as if it were an away match, Mourinho must now prepare the second game as if it were the home tie. Pepe's suspension and an injury to Sami Khedira limits midfield options, so Xabi Alonso is likely to partner Lassana Diarra as Mourinho switches back to 4-2-3-1. The second change from the first leg will be that Ronaldo will not play furthest forward.

Gerard Pique has spoken of how much more difficult he is to deal with when coming from deeper. The man who is currently holding together Barcelona's crumbling rearguard said last week: "If he gets you one-on-one in a sprint, he is unstoppable. When he is stationary he is not so dangerous."


His cup final goal came from playing at centre-forward but the majority of his goals this season have come from an inside-left position that allows him to charge in from the flank and shoot right-footed. That is where he will be tonight, with either Emmanuel Adebayor or Karim Benzema shouldering No 9 duties.

The constant 'why can't you be like that nice Leo' rankles with Ronaldo almost as much as the Argentinian's narrow goalscoring advantage over him in all competitions.

Messi leads the scoring stakes 3-2 over the four Clasicos played this season so far. He also leads Ronaldo in the race for the Golden Boot.

The Champions League final would give him another game to close in on Ruud van Nistelrooy's record of 12 goals in one tournament and he will also take a giant step to another Balon d'Or by making it to Wembley.

The final chapter of the season appears to have already been written. Ronaldo has 90 minutes to rewrite it. But he will need a helping hand from a manager who still believes that Barcelona can't be beaten by just playing football. (© Independent News Services)

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