Monday 22 January 2018

With two trophies in six years, where has it all gone wrong for Ronaldo at Real Madrid?

Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo

Pete Jenson

This October, Universal Pictures will release Ronaldo, a film documentary that follows the Real Madrid player for a year of his life.

Asif Kapadia, who directed Senna, was involved as an executive producer and if the film is as good as the biopic of the Brazilian Formula One driver, it is to be eagerly anticipated.

The story will include Ronaldo’s coronation as Fifa World Player of the Year at the Ballon d’Or ceremony in January and is likely to take up his story in May 2014 as he wins the Champions League in Lisbon. His slightly exaggerated shirt-off celebration after scoring Madrid’s incidental fourth goal from the penalty spot is understood to have been very much with the film in mind.

Seen through that nine-month period from May to January this year, Ronaldo’s looks like a perfect career, but if we zoom out for a panoramic image of his six years at Real Madrid the landscape is a little more bleak.

As he kicks off another campaign in Spain tonight he can look back on having scored more than 50 goals a season for the last five years, and yet only once having won La Liga.

Has it been the impatience of the president, the failings of the managers, or the presence of an even better Barcelona that has seen the greatest talent ever to grace the Premier League fall short so often in Spain?

When Ronaldo joined Madrid in the 2009-10 season for £80million, Manuel Pellegrini was his coach and his arrival coincided with the signing of Karim Benzema, Xabi Alonso and Kaka. Real Madrid spent almost  £180m that summer – and still finished second.

Injury meant Ronaldo played only 35 games in that first season. He still managed to score 33 goals but Barcelona finished three points clear at the top. Their brilliance was one reason for Ronaldo’s first runners-up spot; the decisions made at the start of the season by president Florentino Perez were another.

Cristiano Ronaldo's mum stopped at airport
Cristiano Ronaldo's mum stopped at airport

Too many new players had been brought to the club at once. The supporters had long called for Kaka to be signed but to get him Perez sold Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder against the advice of Pellegrini. They moved to Bayern Munich and Internazionale respectively and duly met in the Champions League final at the end of the season. What Ronaldo and Robben in tandem might have achieved we will never know.

Perez decided to stop imposing himself on his managers but to do that he would need to hire one he trusted implicitly and so with the ink not dry on Pellegrini’s severance, he brought in Jose Mourinho.

Ronaldo’s marriage with his fellow Portuguese was always going to be one of convenience. They had clashed in the Premier League in 2007 when Mourinho claimed that penalties were never awarded against Manchester United and Ronaldo said: “The whole world knows what Mourinho is like. He always has to say something to gain attention, especially when he is not happy with his own players’ performances. He never recognises when he is wrong.”

In their first season together the differences were put to one side for the greater good and Mourinho built the team around Ronaldo, who responded with 53 goals including the one that won the Spanish Cup. But they still came second in the league, four points adrift of Barça.

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo and Atletico Madrid defender Joao Miranda battle for the ball
Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo and Atletico Madrid defender Joao Miranda battle for the ball

The Barcelona-are-simply-better factor was important that year. The Catalans were also too good for Manchester United, whom they defeated 3-1 in the Champions League final at Wembley. By the end of their first campaign together, though, the friction between Ronaldo and Mourinho was already building. When Real Madrid faced Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final Mourinho’s tactical priority going into the first leg at home had been not to concede.

He wanted to be able to hit Barcelona on the break at the Nou Camp and for that a 0-0 was a good result. Ronaldo was in no mood to be tactically conservative and the image of him with his hands on his hips looking back at his team-mates, raising his hands in exasperation, summed up the difference of opinion. Everyone was sitting deep as Mourinho instructed. Ronaldo was on his own closing down the Barça defenders.

The clash between the two would colour their remaining two years together and although they were champions in 2012 – Ronaldo’s solitary La Liga title – the following campaign they won nothing and Mourinho departed. Carlo Ancelotti turned up with his English assistant Paul Clement in the summer of 2013 and Ronaldo scored 17 Champions League goals as Real Madrid became the first club to win a 10th European Cup. “He is worth a goal start,” said Ancelotti, who knew better than to upset his best player.

Clement, meanwhile, was in wonder at what that player could do. He had worked with Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Paris Saint-Germain but this was another level. And the talent came accompanied by an insatiable appetite to win. “Every training drill is turned into a competition,” he said.Yet just as with their league-winning year, the season that brought La Decima was followed by a campaign of massive underachievement. The club’s constant need for expensive new signings was again partly to blame.

At the 2014 World Cup nobody had played more accurate passes than Toni Kroos and no one had scored a better goal than James Rodriquez. Madrid signed both but got rid of Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria to do so, breaking up the side that had delivered the European Cup and upsetting a winning balance.

Barcelona’s brilliance once again played a part. Ronaldo scored 61 goals but Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar scored 122 between them. The end of last season is presumably not covered in too much depth in the movie.

More will be made of the Ballon d’Or ceremony last January when instead of crying, as he had done the season before, he let out that celebratory primal scream. There are times when, watching Ronaldo respond so emotionally to the individual acclaim, you wonder if the team’s failings are easier for him to take.

How much does it really bother him that Madrid have failed to build on his brilliance? If he scores another 10 goals this season he will become the club’s highest all-time scorer, beating Raul’s record of 323 and doing so in some 400 fewer games.

At Real Madrid he has become the joint highest-paid player in the world with net earnings of around €17m. He has three “golden balls”, and a lucrative career in the United States awaits him whenever he is ready.

The cry of “Si!” that echoed around Kongresshaus in Zurich in January as Thierry Henry handed him the trophy – much like his shirt-off celebration after scoring his penalty in the Champions League final – look like the perfect set-pieces of a very individual footballer.

Maybe it’s Madrid who are the real losers in those six underperforming seasons. When the season before Ronaldo arrived is included in the substandard streak, they have won only one of the last seven league titles; you have to go back to 1954 for the last time that they had won only one in eight.

For that miserable run to have coincided with them having in the team arguably their second greatest player of all time behind Alfredo di Stefano will, years from now, look like a misprint in the annals of their club history.

(© Independent News Service)

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